Opinion: Strikes by the Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker: Is Britain Facing Another Winter of Discontent?
Britain has a long history of industrial action, as the working classes have been “withholding their labour as a means of bargaining for better pay and conditions” since the Industrial Revolution. Strike frequency and worker discontent had slowed down since the 1979 Winter of Discontent and the subsequent Thatcher administration, but it seems like things are beginning to accelerate once again. Our public transport system is grinding to a halt as train workers, bus drivers and airport workers are going on strike over Christmas. Additionally, nurses and ambulance workers, as well as Royal Mail employers, are staging walkouts.
One cannot be shocked at this strike action, given Britain’ current economic situation. With inflation reaching double digits and paralysing energy bills, people are struggling to make ends meet as wages fail to keep up. The government made some attempt to mitigate the impacts of this crisis; the Energy Price Guarantee (EPG) capped the unit of cost of energy, and they awarded £400 off energy bills for every household. However, these measures seemingly have not had the required impact.
Considering all of this, it is inevitable that now there is discussion (and conflict) over wages. Looking at the nurses strike, their main motivation for striking is their demand for a pay rise, with the RCN stating that it has “consistently fallen below inflation—a fact which is being exacerbated by the cost of living crisis—and must now rise significantly to reflect that”.The government is resistant, arguing that a pay rise which is 5% above the inflation level, would cost them around £9 billion. No resolution has been reached; therefore the strikes are to go ahead as planned.
There has been a similar lack of reconciliation between the rail workers and the Rail Delivery Group (which represents train companies). Railway workers are citing pay, job insecurity and working conditions as their main grievances for the strikes, and – like the nurses’ union- argue that wages should be brought in line with inflation. The union has rejected the offer put forward by the RDG, as it fails to address some grievances, and the RMT union has accused the government of interfering in talks in order to block a resolution being agreed.
It is unsurprising that the British government is not keen to see significant wage increases. As we saw, when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, he inherited an economic mess, which became his responsibility to clean up. Inflation in October 2022 was around 11.10%, and the cost of living is “increasing at its fastest rate in 40 years”. Many of these external influences that have impacted the British economy, like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have been out of the government’s control. But this Conservative government seems quite unwilling to listen to the worker’s demands, which in my opinion will only seek to damage any opportunity for resolution.
Many suppose that given the timing of the strikes, the government is hoping that public opinion will turn against the workers. Currently, the public are fairly sympathetic to the strikers demands, with around 60% supporting the action. The level of support varies from sector to sector. Unsurprisingly, the nurses strike holds the most public backing, with 61% of Briton’s supporting them. Therefore, the government counting on a change in public opinion to avoid having to pay out is risky, especially given the affection that the public holds for healthcare workers for their bravery during the pandemic. Additionally, at this moment public support for the government is fairly low, given the events of the last few months. This makes it unlikely that the public will back the government over valued key workers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. The public knows best how difficult the last few months have been in terms of the cost of living and rising prices. Therefore, many will have long lasting sympathy for the strikers.
The government’s hardline approach will also do them no favours in halting, or resolving this busy calendar of industrial action. They are looking to bring in legislation which will reduce the impact of the strikes, by extending the so-called ‘Minimum Service Level Agreements’ to sectors like transport. This does not prohibit strike action, but mandates that a certain level of service has to be provided. Sunak cited that if “union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public”. He also has refused to rule out an outright banning of strikes by emergency service workers.
There is not an easy solution to this conflict. The country is currently in economic difficulty, and there is not great capacity for major spending projects. However, the workers who are demanding pay rises are those who kept our country running during the pandemic. They were the real heroes of the ‘Covid-age’, and have long been neglected and undervalued. The UK government and companies responsible for these sectors should really consider the idea that if they invest well in these sectors and make their workers feel valued, the country will reap the rewards. Hardline action and attempting to take away their right to strike will do nothing but polarise them further, and will not help to get the public on the government’s side.