Thursday, November 10th, 2022, the London tube and overground rail network ground to a halt as transport workers walked off the job, shuttering stations and stranding commuters. This strike was by far the largest of the series of transport strikes and industrial actions undertaken by TSSA (Transport Salaried Staff Association) in November. The TSSA represents almost all workers in the London Underground and a substantial portion of the London Overground. But there are other unions that have threatened or are indeed going to strike. The Bus, Tram, and National Rail Unions have also voted to strike, conducting single-day actions throughout the end of November and the beginning of December. With the Nurse’s and Teachers’ unions also threatening to strike.
The largest of the planned strikes is by UCU (University and College Union), representing nearly 120,000 academics and support staff at Universities around the country. This strike which is to take place over three days from Thursday, November 24th, Friday, November 25th, and Wednesday, November 30th, is the largest university strike in British history.
It is not just striking that is being used by Unions either but also working to rule actions, which is when employees perform duties strictly to the letter of their contract, as well as overtime bans, and refusal to cover for absent colleagues due to strike actions.
But why all of these strikes? While each union has its grievances with its employers, the general cause of these strikes is the UK’s cost of living crisis. For public sector unions, the government and public corporations have offered pay raises well below the inflation rate. An example is the pay rise proposed to UK nurses, which was around 4.75%, whereas as of this writing, the inflation rate is around 10%-12.6% depending on the index. Similarly, the UCU was offered only a 3% pay rise, a pattern that UCU union leaders say follows more than a decade of sub-inflation pay rises, combined with cuts to benefits and increasing insecurity of contracts. Pay rises have been higher for the private sector but have also failed to keep up with the inflation rate.
The public has been overwhelmingly supportive of the strikes despite the disruption they have had and will have on the transport, communications, medical, education, and other sectors. According to a BBC poll, 60% of people support workers taking industrial action compared to 33% who oppose it. Some sectors have received more support than others, with support for Teacher and Nurse strikes resting at around 55% to 64%, respectively. At the same time, support for Civil Servants and Barristers’ strikes is about 39% and 33%.
Some Unions have received success in achieving the large pay rises necessary to keep up with the rate of inflation. For example, criminal Barristers in England and Wales received a 15% pay increase. At the same time, Refuse workers in Eastbourne and Bus drivers in Northern London received 11% pay increases.
Significant pay increases do pose some concerns, especially for public sector workers who are paid by the UK government. The fiscal and monetary instability caused by the mini-budget is still being felt and has impacted the long-term economic outlook for the country. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak warned of a “profound economic crisis” with “difficult decisions to come.” What precisely those decisions are is unknown, but they are hypothesized to be some form of government austerity, making it more challenging to provide a more generous pay offer to public sector workers. The Bank of England has also cited concerns that significant pay increases in both the public and private sectors will force businesses to increase their prices, thus reinforcing or even increasing inflation, leading to demands for even higher wages and creating a wage-price spiral.
Others have criticized the public worker’s unions for being unrealistic, most commonly citing nurses’ pay demand, which according to the Guardian, is 5% of the prevailing inflation rate as monitored by the retail price index. While real income for nurses would only increase by 5%, the nominal income paid to nurses would increase by 17.6%. The Health Secretary Steven Barclay has said such demands are “neither reasonable nor affordable”. Similarly, the Vice Chancellors of UK Universities, the ones in charge of managing the University budgets, have not budged in their offer to the UCU despite the strikes.
There is an impasse between the needs of the unions and the needs of the government. The public is caught in the middle. With winter and the holiday season rapidly closing in, disruption and lost productivity seem to be the order of the day. Whether business, government, and unions can come together and hammer out an agreement that will be agreeable before the New Year is determined.