Why are half a million workers on strike..

... and what is the impact of the industrial strike action currently sweeping the UK?

Why are half a million workers on strike

General strikes have been causing chaos across the UK with an estimated half a million workers having taken action on the 1 February across several sectors; while the 6 February saw both NHS nurses and ambulance staff in England striking simultaneously for the first time. 

Not only are traditional trade union members striking, workers in contemporary industries are also taking action. In recent weeks we’ve seen employees at Amazon stage a strike to demand pay of £15 an hour, marking the first time the corporation has faced industrial action in the UK.

This has resulted in more days lost to industrial action than in any six month period for over 30 years, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR). The CEBR also estimates that strikes and the indirect effect of worker absences caused by rail strikes cost the economy at least £1.7 billion over eight months last year, and it’s estimated the teachers’ strikes could cost the economy an estimated £200 million per day.

The impact of strikes across the sectors

Royal Mail has warned that its UK postal service will be materially lossmaking this year with its parent company, International Distributions Services, qualifying that 18 days of strikes helped push the division to a £295m operating loss in the first nine months of its financial year. It also warned that it was considering breaking up the business, which includes its profitable overseas operations GLS, as a direct consequence of lengthy industrial dispute. 

The main issue the disputes revolve around is pay, with the average wage growth in the UK slowing down since the financial crisis in 2008 with only a modest rise in certain sectors’ pay. Private sector pay in 2022 was up 7.1% compared with a year earlier, while average public sector pay has grown by just 3.3% over the same period.

While some private sector workers have reached pay deals with employers after taking strike action, many public sector disputes continue which is a direct consequence of the government being involved within industrial disputes, despite insistence that the disputes are only between staff, trade unions and their direct employer. The government however still takes advice from independent pay bodies when setting public wage increases and has urged unions to cancel strikes while it holds these talks to discuss the recommendations made on pay.

The average pay increases for teachers range from 8.9% for early career teachers to 5% for teachers at the top of the main scale. These figures are below inflation meaning, that in real terms, pay has declined. It’s for this very reason unions representing teachers in the state-funded school system have asked for an above-inflation pay award funded fully by the government. The Consumer Price Index measure of inflation sat at 10.5% at the end of 2022.

Around 100,000 civil servants taking strike action have also demanded a 10% pay rise.

The government has maintained the narrative that inflation-matching pay rises are unaffordable and one that would only fuel further price increases and cause interest rates as well as mortgage payments to rise further.

The government’s plan to avoid continuous strike action

The government has indicated an intention to introduce a law to guarantee minimum safety service levels during industrial action through the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which seeks to give powers to government Ministers to establish minimum service levels in six sectors including health, transport and education. This will be difficult however as the UK still operates under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), where everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others. This includes the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests. The conservative government has however recently indicated its intention to pull the UK out of the ECHR, mainly due to issues around immigration. But, to do this without an electoral mandate is likely to cause massive ructions and face challenges in the House of Lords.

The largest industrial disputes remain ongoing even as unions, employers and the government hold negotiations. There are signs that the railway unions and their employers are inching towards a resolution, but this could just be part of the dance of effective dispute resolution. 

The other difficulty the government has is the regional nature of some of these disputes. For example, NHS staff in Wales have recently suspended strike action following an improved offer from Ministers, where eight health unions were offered an extra 3% on top of the £1,400 already promised with a similar offer being made in Scotland.  

As well as these regional politics, it has also now become more difficult for the government to agree higher pay deals when so many workers across so many sectors are involved in disputes. Although unions have a clear mandate to continue with the strikes at the moment, they will have to re-ballot their members to take further industrial action after six months, which can be extended to nine months with the agreement of the employer. 

The disputes are not just based on pay as well, which seems to get lost in the crossfire of commentary; the majority of disputes also involve working conditions, pensions and compulsory redundancies. These important issues are just as significant to workers which need to be sensitively dealt with. 

History tells us that it is the trade union members who eventually settle disputes but, as long as inflation and the economy continues to perform poorly, 2023 could be the year of discontent.

Dr Jonathan Lord
Dr Jonathan Lord

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