British workers in the transport, health, and education sectors, among others, have already begun industrial action and more are likely to join in as the government and employers refuse to offer pay hikes that keep up with inflationDecember 31, 2022 by Tanupriya Singh
Even as 2022 is drawing to a close, the strike wave that swept the UK this year, with hundreds of thousands of workers in the public and private sector downing tools to fight for better conditions, is showing no signs of slowing down.
On Saturday, December 31, over 1,000 members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) who are working on contract as cleaners in the railways are set to walkout in the first national strike of its kind. Workers at private companies including Atalian Servest, Churchill, and Mitie are fighting for a £15 ($18.04) per hour wage, company sick pay, good pensions, and “decent holidays.”
They will join ISS cleaners on Docklands Light Railway (DLR), who will enter their second day on strike on Saturday over issues including over pay, working conditions, and imposed rosters.
Meanwhile, over 1,000 members of the UK Border Staff entered the third day of strike action on December 30. The four-day action is the second strike organized by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) at airports in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, and Glasgow, as well as the port of Newhaven.
The ruling Conservative-led government has offered a 2% pay rise for workers in the civil service, which includes border staff. The PCS has countered with a demand for a 10% pay increase, job security, improved pensions, and no cuts to redundancy terms.
In November, 100,000 PCS members across over 200 government departments and public bodies had overwhelmingly voted in favor of industrial action in support of these demands.
As part of this campaign, driving examiners, Approved Driving Instructor (ADI) examiners, and local driving test managers launched a strike action in Scotland and northern England on December 13. Starting December 28, driving examiners across 71 test centers in East England and the Midlands also walked out.
PCS members working as road traffic officers and control room operators in South West England and the West Midlands also launched two days of strike action on December 30, leading up to a strike in all regions between January 3 and 4, 2023.
While workers and unions are raising specific sectoral demands subject to separate negotiations, one of the major issues that has unified this year of labor unrest is the fact that wages have failed to keep up with rising prices as the UK has witnessed a severe cost-of-living crisis.
After surging to a 41-year high in October, inflation came down slightly to reach 10.7% in November. Meanwhile, according to the UK Trade Union Congress (TUC), the average real pay at present is lower than what it was in 2008. Data from the Resolution Foundation also shows that the household disposable income fell by 3.3% in 2022, the biggest annual decline in 100 years.
The organization has warned that households are set to experience a further decline in living standards, which already recorded the largest fall in 2022 since records began in the 1950s, with incomes projected to fall by 3.8%.
According to Debt Justice, 15 million people in the UK are struggling to afford basic costs including food and energy bills, pushing more and more households into debt– “The household debt crisis has been decades in the making as governments have stripped back the welfare state, allowed an explosion of insecure jobs, and presided over falling incomes”.
This drastic decline in living conditions in the UK is being overseen by a Conservative government committed to furthering an austerity agenda, warning of “difficult decisions” ahead at a time when millions are struggling to heat their homes this winter.
The impact of years of austerity and the hollowing out of crucial public infrastructure has also been highlighted by these strikes.
Strikes in critical sectors
The strikes this week took place on the heels of major industrial actions in critical sectors, including the historic strikes to demand better pay by over 100,000 nurses from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales on December 15 and 20, and ambulance workers affiliated with the unions GMB, Unison, and Unite on December 21.
Analysis of NHS pay scales by the TUC has revealed that nurses’ real pay has fallen by £1,800 ($2,164.6) over the last year. Tory-led austerity measures and a push towards privatization has resulted in a situation where health workers are overburdened and underpaid and millions of people are waiting to access medical treatment.
Instead of ensuring that workers are paid fairly and are able to afford basic necessities, political leaders and even the Bank of England have tried to vilify workers, warning that raising wages could trigger a “wage-price spiral” which would somehow impede efforts to tackle inflation.
Data from October showed that nominal pay increased by 6.4%, significantly below inflation which stood at 11.1%. A demand to have wages match, not even exceed, inflation is simply a demand to not have wages be cut in real terms. Yet the government has continued to try and shift the blame on workers, even as analysis has revealed that while high inflation was initially caused by supply chain shocks, corporate profiteering is to blame for the crisis, with price gouging “pushing a “second round” inflation”.
Between December 23 and 24, 115,000 Royal Mail postal workers affiliated with the Communications Workers Union (CWU) staged their 17th and 18th days of strike this year, fighting against an “unagreed 2% pay deal imposed on them”.
Having claimed that it could not pay workers a higher wage and that it had lost £100 million ($120 million) due to the strikes, Royal Mail announced that it had built a £1.7 billion ($2.05 billion) ‘war chest’ after rejecting an offer to negotiate with CWU.
“When a company openly boasts of having built a £1.7 billion fund to crush its own workers rather than use that money to settle the dispute and restore the service, then you know dark forces are clearly at work,” stated the union’s general secretary Dave Ward.
Between December 24 and 27, more than 40,000 RMT members working at Network Rail and 14 train operating companies went on strike, a day after the union accused government ministers of blocking rail employers from reaching a deal.
On December 12, RMT announced that workers had rejected an offer which included a pay rise of 5% and 4% over a two-year period, thousands of job losses, a 50% cut in scheduled maintenance and a 30% increase in unsocial hours.
“The government is refusing to lift a finger to prevent these strikes and it is clear they want to make effective strike action illegal in Britain,” stated RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch.
“We will resist that and our members, along with the entire trade union movement will continue their campaign for a square deal for workers, decent pay increases and good working conditions.”
The union has organized another set of two-day strikes on January 3-4, and then 6-7. Another union, ASLEF, which reportedly represents 96% of train drivers in England, Scotland, and Wales, has also announced that its members at 15 companies will go on strike on January 5 over pay-related issues.
Health workers on the frontlines
Meanwhile, starting January 9, the British Medical Association is set to start balloting 45,000 junior doctors across England for industrial action. According to the organization, the take-home pay for junior doctors has declined by 26% in the past 15 years. Moreover, it has highlighted that the 2% pay rise offered by the government will amount to a 10% real terms pay cut.
At the same time, health workers are gearing up for another round of strike, with strikes by ambulance service workers in England on January 11 and 23 organized by Unison, and another set of strikes by RCN on January 18 and 19 which will affect 55 NHS Trusts.
The union has demanded a pay increase of 5% above inflation (or about 19%), stating that the value of salaries of experienced nurses is 20% lower in real terms since 2010. Meanwhile, the NHS Pay Review Body has recommended a pay increase of £1,400 ($1,693) or a hike of 4%. The walkout will go ahead as planned unless the government opens negotiations, the union has said.
The UK’s education sector, which saw the “biggest ever university strike” by over 70,000 staff across 150 universities in November, might witness a round of major strikes by teachers in the new year. Teachers and social workers have had the lowest pay growth in the UK between 2011-11 and 2020-21.
300,000 teachers and support staff who are members of the National Education Union (NEU) are in the process of casting their ballots to determine if they would be willing to go on strike, with each dispute about the government’s failure to provide “fully-funded above-inflation pay rise.”
The NASUWT teachers union is currently also balloting members in schools and sixth-form colleges in England, Scotland, and Wales over the government’s failure to pay teachers a 12% pay award. Meanwhile, NASUWT members in primary schools in Scotland are set to go on strike on January 10, followed by secondary school teachers on January 11.
The strikes on January 10 and 11 will coincide with a two-day strike by the Educational Institute of (EIS) and a walkout by members of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA).
Meanwhile, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is also in the midst of balloting firefighters and control staff over potential strike action, after workers rejected a “derisory” 5% pay offer. The union has pointed out that chief fire officers are being paid up to six times more than an ordinary firefighter, who, along with control staff, have been forced to rely on food banks and are struggling to pay their bills. Voting will close on January 30.
An estimated 1 million working days were lost to strike action in the month of December alone, the highest figure since 1989.
As workers are gearing up for more walkouts in 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that he is working on “new tough laws” to impede strike actions. A bill to ensure minimum service levels on transport services has already been introduced in Parliament.
Meanwhile, 11 trade unions are now preparing to mount a legal challenge against government regulations introduced this year which would allow companies in the UK to hire agency staff during strikes, with a judicial review expected in March, 2023.