6 Reasons UK Strikes Aren't Going Anywhere Anytime Soon

Rail workers may have triggered the first mass walkouts, but widespread industrial action has only just begun.
Strikes from Edinburgh to Felixstowe have hit the UK in recent months
Strikes from Edinburgh to Felixstowe have hit the UK in recent months

From national rail strikes, to bin workers’ walkouts in Edinburgh, and the first ever industrial action from NHS nurses – UK employees across the country are fighting back right now.

Pushback against employers has become increasingly common over the last few months, with many industries inspired by the train workers’ strikes which brought the country to a halt in June.

But, six months later, these rail employees have still not managed to negotiate a successful settlement with employers.

Even so, more and more sectors following suit – and it’s unlikely to stop any time soon. Here’s why.

1. Stagnant wages

The vast majority of the walkouts come down to pay, pensions and (or) working conditions.

There has been 12 years of austerity – introduced by the Conservative government after the 2008 financial crash – and wage stagnation in the UK.

This means many workers have not see their pay rise with inflation, even when it was at the Bank of England’s target rate of 2%.

And, since inflation is soaring right now and we’re in a recession, there’s even more disparity between the salaries people were first given in 2010 and the current cost of living.

For many public sector industries, this amounts to having their pay slashed, such as teachers who had their pay frozen or raised below inflation and ended up with a salary which was £7,000 less than in the previous decades.

2. Cost of living crisis

People’s bank balances are being squeezed across the country as prices jump everywhere.

Inflation is currently at a 41-year-high at 11.1% and set to go even higher, while chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement meant the public will soon be paying the highest tax burden for 70 years.

Energy bills are increasing by the most alarming rate, making it harder for people across the country to pay for the bare necessities – and pushing many into fuel poverty.

3. Profiteering under the spotlight

One of the reasons employers are resisting calls for wages to increase with inflation comes down to a warning from the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey.

He asked workers not to request a pay rise back in Spring, sparking fears that the more money employees asked for, the more inflation would rise. This warning has been repeated by the Office for Budget Responsibility, too.

However, most unions disagree – and say companies can afford to pay workers more, as long as the big cats at the top take less.

To take one example, Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham, told Radio 4′s Today programme back in August Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company’s offer to raise workers’ wages by the 7% was not enough.

She said not only was it below inflation, but pointed out that the UK’s largest container port.

Graham alleged that the company’s accounts show they had £79 million profit for 2021, and that £42 million of this went to shareholders.

With profits up 28%, Graham said, the firm has made more profit than they’ve ever made in their history and yet appear unwilling to pass this onto workers.

She told the Today programme: “The reality is they have a clear ability to pay. They’re making record profits, the workers are just asking for a 10% pay increase, and they’re offering a pay cut.”

Inflation has been triggered by the war in Ukraine and soaring gas prices along with general global downturn, putting a strain on supplies.

Back in April, Trades Union Congress chief, Kevin Rowan, also argued: “Energy and food costs are the real drivers of inflation rather than wages.

“Wages have been held back for a very long time and lots of people are really struggling. Workers should not be paying the price for economic factors out of their control.”

But, as BBC business correspondent Marc Ashdown noted: “Until the tide is turned and the cost of living starts to recede rather than rise, it will also be difficult to convince workers not to push for higher wage settlements.”

4. Post-Covid recovery

There is no denying that entire working landscape has altered following subsequent lockdowns and the post-Covid recovery.

The lockdown means there are now fewer workers, both due to long-term consequences of the virus itself and the wave of employees who dropped out of work altogether. There was the Great Resignation, too, as people shifted careers while the UK came out of lockdown.

As the striking rail workers have pointed out, the pandemic also highlighted how much we still depend on certain industries (from health care to transport) to keep the country propped up.

But, despite repeated praise from the government throughout the worst periods of Covid, such sectors have received little formal recognition.

With these frontline workers risking the most during the most dangerous times of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that frustration has bubbled up.

5. Growing discontent

When rail workers first announced their walkout for three days in June, it was heralded as the largest industry action seen for 33 years.

Now, with more strikes on the way and no resolution on the horizon for the rail industry, more people are rallying in support for workers everywhere.

General-secretary of the RMT union, Mick Lynch, also told The Guardian that this was the only way these strikes were going to work.

“We’re going to need the support of the community and the whole of Britain’s public opinion. It’s got to be bigger than my trade union, because we’re not able to do this on our own.”

Industrial action within the rail sector has sparked conversations about pay everywhere.

And, back in April before the June strikes hit every front page, The Observer claimed that industrial disputes in the UK were at their highest levels in five years – suggesting something was already brewing before RMT acted.

Similarly, the TUC pointed out that there was more industrial conflict than at any time over the last five years: “Workers are on the front foot and taking employers on.”

6. An ‘escalating battle’

The government’s attempts to put out this fire have just poured petrol on it.

Ministers have threatened to clamp down on industrial action through agency workers, and introduce legislation which meant a minimum service would have to run at all times.

But, according to Lynch, this shows the government is only “escalating the battle” – meaning unionists are “going to have to respond in kind”.

When asked if strikes were the right answer to these ongoing pay disputes, Lynch told The Guardian: “But what is the answer? Do we pray, or play tiddlywinks, or have a sponsored silence? What is there for working people to do if they’re not organised?”

Former transport secretary Grant Shapps has also been criticised for avoiding negotiation talks between the unions and their employers, after he suggested that it was a “red herring” for a minister such as himself to get involved.

When Shapps suggested in August to Sky News could force unions to put every deal from employers to their membership, he was also accused of “advocating fire-and-rehire” tactics by the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association.

The TSSA’s general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “Grant Shapps is touring TV studios spouting anti-worker nonsense when it’s actually within his gift as transport secretary to resolve this dispute. At every turn, his actions ramp up the dispute and make it harder to get a resolution.”

Now, figureheads such as Lynch are calling for the new transport secretary Mark Harper to step up to resolve the dispute amid claims that the government put a stop to the negotiations last minute.


What's Hot