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Key Workers: Strikes over Pay and Conditions

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

In the wake of the most significant period of industrial action in the UK for decades, Jonny Rogers explores the causes of the discontent and likely outcomes of the strikes.

NHS medical nurse protests in grey uniform sitting

The end of 2022 saw countless workers across Britain – including nurses, ambulance drivers, rail workers, teachers, university staff and civil servants – declaring strike action in demand of better pay and improved working conditions.

In November, the United Kingdom experienced the highest total number of working days lost to labour disputes for over a decade. With many strikes extending into the new year, joined by an expanding range of workers, there is no apparent end in sight for Britain’s new ‘winter of discontent’.

The Cost of Living Crisis

While the demands vary between sectors, these strikes have been primarily catalysed by the cost of living crisis, and the failure of employers to offer wages that reflect the current economy. Inflation reached a 41-year high in October with an 11.1% rise over 12 months, rendering household goods, fuel and education increasingly unaffordable for the UK population. The Confederation of Business Industry predicts that Britain’s economy will shrink 0.4% in 2023.

One key factor in the present economic crisis is rising energy prices. While global energy demand dropped during 2020's national lockdowns, oil and gas usage has increased as many have returned to work and facilities have reopened. It is believed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the imports of Russian oil being restricted or banned to curtail the nation’s revenues and impede its war efforts, has had an impact on driving up the cost of fuel in Britain. However, the UK imports only a fraction of its oil from Russia, leaving people wondering if the increases are legitimate, directly relatable or just a result of big companies profiteering.

“Like so many workers, our members are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. They are desperate. They are being told there is no money for them, while they watch ministers giving out government contracts worth billions of pounds to their mates” – Mark Serwotka, Public and Commercial Services Union

Research from the Sutton Trust found that more than 60% of UK students in are spending less money on food and essentials, with nearly a quarter claiming that the crisis has decreased the likelihood of completing their degrees. A report published by the Child of the North all-party parliamentary group revealed that children in the North of the UK are most affected by the economic crisis, with over a third living in poverty during the pandemic.

With the National Education Union (NEU) recently voting in favour of strike action in England and Wales, further concerns are raised for the wellbeing and development of British youth – having already been impeded by the pandemic – many of whom are presently preparing for important examinations. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the NEU, acknowledged the potential cost of strikes on younger generations, but argued that discussions about pay, workload and teaching conditions are long overdue: "It's not something we want to do at all, but ministers have to now engage seriously and have to begin negotiating."

Industrial action and the future of Britain

A new YouGov poll has shown that public support for strikes vary between jobs, with nurses and ambulance staff receiving approval from over 63% of the population, while over 48% oppose the strikes of rail workers, university staff and driving examiners. Over half of all Britons blame the government for the strikes of nurses and ambulance staff, while trade unions are blamed for rail strikes by 32% of the population.

Several disputes have been resolved in the past few months: criminal barristers have agreed to a 15% fee rise, BT workers have accepted a 6 to 16% rise, and two NHS Scotland unions have settled for a 7.5% rise. Sharon Graham, general secretary for trade union Unite, congratulated the NHS workers for their resolve and commitment:

“Unite makes no apologies for fighting for better jobs, pay and conditions in the health service because NHS Scotland workers should be fairly rewarded for the outstanding work that they do day in and day out.”

Nevertheless, union negotiations in the public sector have generally seen little progress, with the Conservative government arguing that pay rises would only reinforce and exacerbate inflation. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the disparity between pay in the public and private sectors: the Office for National Statistics found that wages in the private sector grew by 7.2% between September and November, compared to only 3.3% in the public sector.

Did you know? Between June and October 2022, more than 1.1 million working days were lost due to strike action, the highest in a five-month period since 1990. - Reuters

Standing their ground in rejecting the pay demands, the government are instead planning to introduce new legislation that aims to limit how many workers can abandon their duties during a strike. Accordingly, employers would be given the legal authorisation to fire employees who ignore a ‘work notice’ that stipulates their continued labour during industrial action.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak argued that this measure is necessary to sustain a minimum service for critical sectors such as emergency care and public transport, though the bill has received widespread criticism from both trade unions and other politicians. Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, believes that it would only “prolong disputes and poison industrial relations”, thereby leading to more frequent strikes in the future. Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to repeal the legislation if it were to become law.

Concluding thoughts

Some commentators are drawing comparisons between the current situation and the 'Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79. Like today, Britain was experiencing high levels of inflation in the mid-1970s, provoked by an energy supply crisis.

After a strike by Ford workers was settled with a pay increase of 16.5%, significantly exceeding the 5% limit set by the government to control inflation, other industries joined in taking industrial action. In this period, 4.6 million workers in Britain – including those in the automobile, rail, haulage, fuel, nursing and refuse collection industries – went on strike.

With disruptions to healthcare services, petrol stations closing and litter collecting in the street, the resulting chaos yielded public resentment for the Labour government and energised Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, who then implemented measures to control union activity. While the situation has been reversed, with the Conservative government now failing to settle trade disputes, recent history has shown that mass strikes might serve as a prelude to wider political change. As University of Kent Professor Matthew Goodwin notes,

“History is a really big warning sign for Sunak and company […] It was the industrial chaos of the late ’70s that paved the way for a decade of Thatcher. This is compounding a sense in the country that nobody is really in control.”

Researched by Alexandra Kenney / Edited by Ellis Jackson / Online Editor: Harry Hetherington


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