labor rights

EXPLAINER: Why are half a million Britons on strike?

EXPLAINER: Why are half a million Britons on strike?

ON STRIKE. Striking workers attend a march, in London, Britain, February 1, 2023.

Toby Melville/Reuters

Many of the particularly disruptive industrial disputes in Britain are in partly or fully public sectors such as transport and healthcare

LONDON, United Kingdom – Britain is facing its most sweeping wave of industrial action in decades, with workers across sectors including healthcare, transport, and education all walking off the job.

Why are strikes happening now?

At the heart of the unrest is pay.

Average wage growth in Britain slowed after the global financial crisis, and while it gradually picked up in the second half of the 2010s, pay rises were generally smaller for public-sector workers and brought little or no real-term increase.

The divide between public and private-sector pay has become especially sharp over the past year as consumer price inflation reached double digits.

Private-sector pay in the three months to November was up 7.1% compared with a year earlier, while average public-sector pay has grown by 3.3% over the same period.

Many of the particularly disruptive industrial disputes are in partly or fully public sectors such as transport and healthcare, involving railway staff, paramedics, and nurses.

Britain’s worst inflation in 40 years, of around 10% in recent months, has outpaced most public pay offers, and caused a cost-of-living crisis which has seen even some people with jobs resort to food banks.

Many unions say their workers’ pay has been eroded over the past 10 years by only modest growth, further compounding the impact of the recent high inflation, which is caused by soaring energy prices and the aftereffects of the pandemic.

What are the major strikes?

Around half a million workers went on strike on Wednesday, February 1, alone but industrial action has gripped many sectors.

While some private sector workers, from container port staff to bus drivers, have reached pay deals with employers after taking strike action, many public sector disputes continue.

Railway staff, nurses and ambulance workers, teachers and civil servants are demanding pay rises that match or exceed inflation as well as some commitments on working conditions.

The union representing teachers in the state-funded school system has asked for an above-inflation pay award funded fully by the government. It has offered the most experienced teachers a 5% pay rise, to be paid for from schools’ existing budgets.

About 100,000 civil servants – who work in government departments from Border Force airport staff to driving license agency workers – have also been staging strikes as they demand a 10% pay rise.

TEACHERS’ PLEAS. Striking workers attend a march, in London, Britain, February 1, 2023. Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters
What has been the government’s response?

Britain’s government, which takes advice from independent pay bodies when setting public wage increases, has urged unions to cancel strikes while it holds talks with them.

It has argued that inflation-matching pay rises would only fuel further price increases and cause interest rates and mortgage payments to rise further.

The demands on the public purse also come as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government embarks on a package of tax rises and spending cuts in an attempt to repair the public finances and tame inflation.

The government is also introducing a law to guarantee minimum safety service levels during industrial action by firefighters, ambulance staff, and rail workers. Unions have called the law an attack on the freedom to strike.

What has been the strikes’ impact?

Regular rail strikes have caused widespread disruption for commuters and badly damaged the hospitality industry in cities as people stayed at home. A government minister also urged Britons to avoid risky outdoor activities on a day when ambulance workers were striking.

The period between June and November saw more days lost to industrial action than in any six months for over 30 years, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), a consultancy.

The CEBR estimates that strikes and the indirect effect of worker absences caused by rail strikes cost the economy at least 1.7 billion pounds over eight months last year, a fraction of the economy’s total annual output of over 2 trillion pounds.

It also estimated the teachers’ strikes could cost the economy about 20 million pounds a day in direct lost output, but that figure did not include the cost of disruption for parents who are not able to work.

When might the strikes end?

Most of the largest industrial disputes remain ongoing even as unions, employers, and the government hold negotiations.

There are signs that railway staff and their employers are inching towards a resolution.

The nurses’ dispute, despite the nursing union expressing a willingness to meet the government halfway in pay talks, appears far from resolution, with the health minister calling their pay demands unaffordable.

Disputes involving teachers and civil servants also remain ongoing, with both groups planning multiple strike days. 


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