December strikes: What you need to know

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A quick guide to strikes and unions

There have been a lot of strikes lately: trains, teachers, nurses, even the post. But if you're not sure how that happens or why, here's a quick rundown of how the whole system works.

Going on strike means stopping work

It's called industrial action, and it involves workers refusing to come into work for a certain length of time. It's sometimes referred to as "downing tools" or a "walkout".

It can also mean cutting down on how much you do

There are other types of action where work doesn't stop completely, but employees won't do as much as they normally do. This could mean saying no to overtime or "working to rule" - which means refusing to do all the extra little duties that aren't in your job description.

It can cause big problems for other people

When train strikes happen, people can’t get to work. Mail strikes mean deliveries don’t get made and teachers’ strikes mean children stay home. But there are exceptions – like when nurses strike, they ensure a certain level of cover so emergency care keeps running.

A group of fists raised to the sky against a bright blue background

Workers do it because they want something to change

Strikes happen when employers and employees can't agree over something important. It's often about pay, but can also happen when management wants to change working conditions, or over plans that would mean people lose their jobs.

But striking is a last resort

A strike is only meant to happen after a company and its workers have tried to settle things by talking it out. Workers don't get paid while on strike, so it's a big step to take.

Most workers want a better pay rise

The cost-of-living crisis hitting hard, but bosses often say workers are asking for too much. So for example, nurses say low pay is putting off new recruits, while Royal Mail workers and lecturers who’ve been on strikes were also worried about working conditions or pensions.

Strikes are organised by trade unions

Unions are groups set up to represent workers and try to make sure workplaces are safe and employees are paid a fair wage. There's usually a monthly fee to join and different professions each have their own union. Before a strike can happen, unions have to ask all their members with a vote.

Striking doesn't always mean staying at home

Striking workers often stand outside their workplace in groups known as a "picket line". They'll try to get their message out with signs and placards, and try to ask (or shame) other people to not go into the building. If a strike is really big and involves many people, they might hold some kind of protest on the day.

Strikes often get called off when both sides reach a compromise

Neither gets exactly what they want, but sometimes workers can come away with a better pay deal or improved conditions and employers don't lose money by closing down for strikes.