Broken Britain feeling the pinch as RMT leads Christmas strikes

UK's winter of discontent worsens as nurses, airport staff, lecturers, civil servants, rail and postal workers walk out over pay disputes

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Logging on to the UK's rail ticketing website has become a quest to check when the latest strikes will disrupt services as the sector leads a proliferation of protest action that is becoming increasingly disruptive.

A last-minute decision to call off a round rail strikes a week ago proved a false dawn on Tuesday when the RMT Union told travellers that the lead up to the Christmas holidays and early January would be marred by eight days of reduced services.

The news came on a day when London commuters were left on cold streets as drivers walked off scheduled services. Businesses were braced for bank notes to start running short in the festive period when unionised workers for G4S, which provides secure courier deliveries for banks, voted by 97 per cent to reject a four per cent wage offer.

Even the festive cheese platter may not be accompanied as is traditional, as workers at Jacobs, maker of the country's favourite cracker, are on an all-out strike to press their demands.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told a meeting of the UK Cabinet on Tuesday to brace for misery in the coming months. The British economy is in recession and set to contract more than any of the world’s seven most advanced nations next year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has said.

“Looking ahead to winter, the Prime Minister said this would be a challenging period for the country caused by the aftershocks of the global pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine,” an OECD spokesman said.

Unions claim the disruption to the economy is entirely the fault of government and employers. "They have had every opportunity to make a fair pay offer but have chosen not to do so,” said Unite regional officer Kevin Hall, who led a 72-hour ground handlers' strike at Heathrow Airport this week.

Mick Lynch, head of the RMT union, on Tuesday announced members would walk out on December 13, 14, 16, 17 as well as January 3, 4, 6 and 7. RMT members on the London Underground will also bring five tube lines to halt on Friday and on December 18, the last shopping Saturday before Christmas.

Nurses, lecturers and postal workers also set to strike

More than 70,000 lecturers and staff at 150 universities will strike for three working days from Thursday in a long-running dispute over pay, working conditions and pensions.

The University and College Union (UCU) said the protest action will be the biggest to hit UK universities which could affect 2.5 million students.

On Black Friday, one of the busiest online shopping days, 115,000 postal workers are also due to walk out, followed by train drivers.

Sheffield businessman Harvey Morton has labelled the rail situation a “disgrace” as he is already losing out over further strikes planned on November 26.

“Another day of travel scuppered by upcoming rail strikes on November 26,” he said.

“[I’m] losing all sympathy now. It’s not just the railway staff losing out, it’s everyone impacted by no services running. Wasted time scrambling to make alternative arrangements. Money lost. A disgrace!”

With interest rates soaring and the country buckling under a cost-of-living crisis, strike action is sweeping across Britain.

More than 300 disputes logged in the UK in the last year

Not since the winter of discontent in the 1970s has the UK faced such disruption.

The federation of trade unions in England and Wales, the Trade Unions Congress, has logged at least 300 disputes in various industries over the past 12 months.

“Several years of low wage growth, culminating in real wage reductions, have led to a sense that working people have been ignored over the as decade or longer,” Bob Hancke, associate professor of political economy at the London School of Economics, told The National.

“Add the Covid pandemic, in which nurses, doctors, teachers and public transport workers were directly exposed to the pandemic or were forced to change their working patterns quite dramatically (not just do your normal job from home via broadband; teachers had to reorganise courses and delivery), and a significant gap in life chances has become clear.

“Many of the workers on strike over the past and future weeks are in the public sector (or equivalent), with high unionisation rates and employment security.

“Trade unions have understandably not been very happy with 12 years of Tory government. The austerity of the first seven years, and the incompetence of the last five, including some of the corruption and sleaze, has now also cut through to the public at large, and unions in the sectors on strike are capitalising on the combination of labour market power and a broad sense of political malaise. Witness how there are very few public voices against the strikes.

“The projected fiscal intransigence of the current government heralds a long battle of trench warfare, in which public sector unions will claim higher wages, and austerity policies by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will collide regularly.”

Living costs are rising faster than wages

Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the association of human resource management professionals, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), predicts the situation will get worse.

“Many organisations have faced extensive employment relations challenges recently,” she told The National.

“These are only likely to intensify as the current incidents of industrial action show. The tight labour market, combined with a cost-of-living crisis and falling real wages, could be a real recipe for collective conflict.

“These developments are a sharp reminder of the continued influence of trade unions, as well as the need for organisations to build positive employment relations.”

With prices rising at more than 10 per cent a year — the fastest rate in 40 years — living costs are rising faster than wages.

Teachers in Scotland this month also voted to strike and then civil servants pinned their flag to the mast and announced they would walk out too — the dates have yet to be announced.

The Cabinet Office, Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Home Office are among the 124 government offices targeted by the latest action.

Head teachers are also threatening to strike in the new year.

Latest figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed that in June and July, 70,500 and 87,600 working days lost, respectively, as a result of labour disputes.

The June figure is an increase of 51,000 compared with the 2019 average, and the July 2022 figure is an rise of 68,100.

However, latest figures for the month of January 2018 show there were 9,000 recorded working days lost due to strikes — a mere fraction of the 3 million recorded in January 1979 during the winter of discontent.

“Many of the workers who are currently striking — or warning of industrial action — are those who were identified as key workers during the pandemic,” said Jim Phillips, professor of economic and social history at the University of Glasgow.

“As in the 1970s, they are demanding that their pay keeps up with the rising cost of living but they are bargaining from a position of weakness.

“The immediate cause of the current disputes is the rising cost of living, particularly related to increasing food and energy prices.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, is being forced to deal with a recession. PA

“Strikes are expensive expressions of workforce voice and acts of last resort. They tend to be a sign of weakness, arising where workers are not being listened to, as much as they are a sign of strength.

“Critics of these striking workers seek to misrepresent and delegitimise them through mobilising a stereotyped view of the past, focusing on the 1970s, the peak decade of industrial action in post-Second World War Britain.

“But the 1970s to which these critics return did not exist much beyond the front pages of anti-trade union newspapers. Then, as now, strikers were diverse in their background, attempting to protect precarious living standards in a period of rising economic insecurity.”

Prime Minster says nurses' wage demands 'unaffordable'

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week said the Royal College of Nursing’s demand for a 17 per cent pay rise was “unaffordable”.

“Ultimately this money is coming from taxpayers,” he said.

“Everyone will also know that they’re suffering rising bills, they’ll be having those conversations with their own employers about what’s affordable in these difficult circumstances.”

His remarks have been supported by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, who told the House of Commons on Tuesday that “if we give inflation-busting pay awards to people who may deserve them and may be working extremely hard, that would just fuel further inflation”.

In his Autumn Statement he made a number of “eye-watering” decisions after warning he “expected everyone to contribute more”.

He unveiled a package of £30 billion ($35.61 billion) of spending cuts and £24 billion in tax rises over the next five years in response to "unprecedented global headwinds on the UK economy".

Despite his warnings over nurses' wages, he did announce a £3.3 billion increase to the NHS budget in England in each of the next two years.

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, whose members work in public services, including local government, education, health and outsourced services, said stifling public sector pay was the wrong response.

“Holding down pay for public sector staff is the worst possible response,” she said. "This shows a government with no ideas, nor a grasp of the reality of people’s lives.

“The NHS, care and other key services already have a workforce crisis. Many more staff will walk if they know there’s no prospect of a decent pay rise for years.

“That means patients will wait longer, older people won’t get the care they need, crime rates will rise and education will suffer. Everyone suffers if communities don’t have basic services.

“If Rishi Sunak is to hold true to his day-one promise as Prime Minister to strengthen the NHS, he needs to deliver better pay. That goes for all public services.”

Becky Denton and her son Billy, 16, suffered severe delays and costs due to proposed industrial rail action in the UK. Photo: Becky Denton

One suffering traveller is Becky Denton, who has for months been looking forward to a 320km day trip to London with her teenage son for doing well in last summer's school exams. She was caught up in the mayhem of the latest rail strikes.

“All I wanted was to take my son to London for a treat, I’d planned it months ago, and then the rail strikes were announced,” said the 44-year-old from Yorkshire. “I had to pay out hundreds of pounds in alternative transport and a hotel so we could return the day after the strikes."

The experience was even more bitter when the unions called off the strike at the last minute. "I still had to return the next day but only two trains were running and then both were cancelled by the companies as the trains were gridlocked," she told The National.

“Everyone was clutching at straws on how we would get home, in the end it took hours on a bus back to Yorkshire as a result and left me out of pocket. It was absolutely ridiculous.”

She is not alone, her situation is mirrored by many commuters, businesses and holidaymakers alike.

Updated: November 22, 2022, 5:43 PM