Biggest Wave of UK Industrial Action in a Decade

Seamus Connolly

The current wave of industrial action that has swept the UK since June of 2022 reached a peak of sorts in 2023, capping off the biggest mobilization in a generation. — Editors

March 15 signaled a day of concerted industrial action across the United Kingdom, a day symbolically chosen to coincide with the day that Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of Exchequer, released his latest budget (a budget which contained a series of stealth tax rises on the mass of the population along with tax relief for the very wealthiest). Workers from unions across the public sector walked out in protest at the ‘cost of living crisis’ – a combination of stagnating wage growth, energy price rises, food poverty, and an exacerbated housing crisis – that has scarred United Kingdom society for the past half-year or so in an acute sense, and for the past decade or so more generally.

Foremost among the strikers has been the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), who have been locked in a protracted and bitter struggle over pay, conditions, and job security since June 2022. The UK’s railway system, which has been privatized since 1997, has some of the highest ticket prices in the world, more than three times the price of a similar ticket in Germany, and almost five times the price as in France.[1] On March 15 the RMT were joined by Tube (London Underground) drivers and ASLEF (the train drivers’ union), bringing the transport network to a standstill. RMT have since voted to accept a pay offer of between 14.4 per cent for the lowest paid and 9.2 per cent for the highest paid grades.

The March 15 strike saw school teachers in England and Wales walking out of classrooms and sixth-form colleges in England. This follows months of strike action on the part of the National Education Union, including on February 1, where more than half of schools in England were closed or partially closed. The industry itself has been particularly hit by falling salaries and high workloads and has seen a mass exodus from its ranks for 13% since 2019.[2] In Scotland, where the administration has been more willing to enter discussions and find resolutions, members of the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, have accepted pay offer of 7% for some workers and 5% for others.

Teachers were joined by 48,000 junior doctors, who walked out of both routine and emergency care departments. The junior doctors, who account for around 40 per cent of the medical workforce are, according to a British Medical Association (BMA) spokesperson, “demoralised, angry and no longer willing to work for wages that have seen a real-terms decline of over 26 per cent in the past 15 years”.[3] The NHS itself is under severe strain, a situation brough about in part by successive years of underfunding by Conservative governments, whose members contain many who have previously called and currently call for the service marketized along the lines of the US system. Further, intensified strikes have been called for April.

Added to teachers were also civil servants and border officials from the Public and Commercial Services (PCS). This amounted to around 133,000 civil servants in over 123 departments, including those working for the tax office, driving instructors, and Department for Work and Pensions in roles such as Universal Credit handlers. The average salary for said workers is just £23,000 a year. More strikes have been scheduled for April and May.

Finally, more than 70,000 members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) including lecturers joined the strike. Academics have been striking now for the past 5 years over pay, pensions, workloads, and casualisation within the sector. A recent survey has shown that staff work on average two days a week unpaid, and many staff are on 6-12 month contracts.[4] All of this while student fees in England and Wales have tripled since 2003 and vice chancellor pay reaches into the hundreds of thousands. A re-ballot for further strike action has recently closed.

The March 15 action is the culmination of more than half a year of what can only be described as the biggest wave of UK industrial action in a generation. Alongside the railway unions, junior doctors, teachers, civil servants, academics, 2022 saw the first ever strike of nurses and ambulance works. They were joined by refuse workers, fire fighters, postal officers, and even barristers, all of whom were striking against real-term declines in salaries (as high as a 26% real-terms fall for many), set against the highest inflation figures since the early 1980s. Public support has been strongly in favour of the strikes.

This upswing in industrial action has been accompanied by the Enough is Enough campaign, led by Trade Unions and community organisations. Explicitly targeted at ‘the cost-of-living crisis’, the campaign is focused on reformist action (on pay, energy bills, food poverty, housing) to address said crisis that comes a decade and more of ‘austerity’ politics that has reduced the living standard catastrophically. Such has been the scale of the transfer of wealth and the intensification of extraction of surplus value initiated in the aftermath of both the 2008 crash and the COVID 19 pandemic that the UK, once roughly on a par with countries such as Germany, is currently closer to the standard of living of historically somewhat poorer Southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal.[5] By the end of the decade, on the current path, the UK is predicted to move further towards the living standards of countries of Eastern Europe. This standard is already realized for some, with the the poorest fifth of the UK population now much poorer than most of the poorest countries in central and eastern Europe.[6]

The wave of current industrial action is set against significant regression considered in political terms. The current Conservative government has deepened a trend towards increasingly technocratic and authoritarian rule, evident in recent years not only in the UK but across Europe and worldwide. In particular, the strikes have proceeded against the backdrop of proposed ‘anti-strike’ legislation designed to curb strike action by setting ‘minimum service levels’ for critical industries, even on strike days. The UK already has some of the most demanding barriers in terms of industrial action relative to other European countries, and there is no defined right to strike stipulated in law. Worryingly, the proposals, which would apply to workers in England, Scotland, and Wales, do not specify what the minimum service levels should be, but rather, give ministers the power to impose such minimums through secondary legislation.[7] A consequence of which would be the threat of sack for any worker engaging in industrial action and potential million-pound fines on the part of unions. The proposed legislation, which has been ruled by a joint committee on human rights, to be in contradiction with Article 10 of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees freedom of association for workers[8] and which itself is part of the post-Brexit battleground in UK politics.

Compounding this, the UK parliament has sought to re-package the worst parts of its regressive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act into a new Public Order Bill.[9] The legislation, which is largely aimed at the recent increase in environmental protest, would have effectively given the government carte blanche to target protestors in a manner permitted in countries such as Russia and Belarus.[10] Again, the proposals, would likely come into conflict with the stipulations of ECHR. In defiance of the legislation, leading barristers have claimed that they will not prosecute peaceful climate protesters nor act for companies pursuing fossil fuel projects.[11] The House of Lords voted down the proposals by a slim majority of 254 votes to 240, but the authoritarian intent of the present government is clear. A report by civil liberties group Human Rights Watch, warned in January, before most of the Conservative government’s authoritarian policies had been unveiled, that Britons were living through “the most significant assault on human rights protections in the UK for decades”.[12] With the UKs economic woes unlikely to recede any time soon, the left must remain vigilant and strong.















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