The morality of striking

Is it morally acceptable to go on strike, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people who are uninvolved in a dispute? This week’s rail strike is expected to be the biggest in 30 years with only a fraction of services running and widespread disruption. But whatever the arguments behind the dispute, what’s the moral case for a strike?

The right to withdraw labour is seen by many as fundamental, an essential last resort in a battle with employers where workers are trying to secure reasonable pay and conditions. Improved pay deals resulting from strikes are seen as clear evidence that striking itself is legitimate.

But where should the limits be? The police and armed forces can’t go on strike but doctors and nurses can, as well as other essential workers. Is a strike still morally acceptable if it causes widespread misery or severely damages the economy, or if lives are lost as a result?

Some feel that strikes are always unfair. The main victims are usually not employers but people uninvolved in the dispute. Also strikes by some groups of workers are far more disruptive than strikes by others. Has that unfairly driven up pay in some sectors?

It is decades since widespread strikes were a common feature of life in the UK, but this year some are predicting a “summer of discontent”, a wave of disputes that could involve teachers, NHS staff, and others. Should tougher laws be introduced, to protect us all from the worst effects of strikes? Or is it essential that the basic rights of workers are upheld by the law? What’s the moral case for striking? With Paul Nowak, Caroline Farrow, Dr Sam Fowles and Benjamin Loughnane.


Presenter: Edward Stourton
Producers: Jonathan Hallewell and Peter Everett