UK's winter of strikes sets in as government warns of 'significant disruption'

Workers are calling for pay increases as inflation soars to a 40-year high

People across Britain are likely to be affected by strikes over the Christmas period. Bloomberg
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Millions of people across Britain are braced for a festive season marked by disruption on several fronts as workers in several sectors prepare for strikes.

Rail workers, nurses, border force agents, ambulance workers, teachers, Royal Mail staff and employees at energy firms are taking part in mass walkouts over the Christmas period.

Following Covid-19 restrictions over the last two winters, hopes for a “normal” Christmas have been dashed by the strikes. However, some strikes have been averted following breakthroughs in negotiations between unions and employers.

So what has pushed so many workers to resort to such drastic action at a time when demand for travel and other services is high?

Waste collection

Rubbish piling up outside people’s homes is a scene that has been diverted after waste collection workers in various parts of the UK reached an agreement on pay, following strikes.

Among agreements reached by the GMB were a 17 per cent rise for some workers in Windsor and Maidenhead, just outside London, and increases of between 8 per cent and 22 per cent for workers in Manchester.

BT

Telecoms company BT in November reached an agreement with employees on salaries of £50,000 or less in hopes it would lead to a planned strike of about 40,000 workers being called off.

BT said the Communication Workers Union (CWU) would recommend that members vote in favour of the offer, which the union said represented a pay rise ranging from 6 per cent to 16 per cent for employees of different grades.

The firm said that overall, 85 per cent of its 100,000-strong UK-based workforce would benefit from the pay rise.

British Airways staff called off a strike in July after accepting a pay increase. PA

Airports

Summer strikes were averted at Heathrow Airport when British Airways staff represented by two unions called off action after accepting a new pay offer.

The GMB union said workers would receive a consolidated pay rise of 8 per cent, a one-off bonus and the reinstatement of shift pay, while Unite said its offer was worth a 13 per cent pay rise for staff, which will be paid in several stages.

Shortly before the package was accepted in July, the airline's check-in staff at Heathrow also suspended a strike upon accepting an improved pay deal.

Rail workers

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has organised strike days throughout December and into January which will see 40,000 personnel down tools.

Parts of the country ground to a halt over the summer when rail workers walked out in the largest strike in more than 30 years, and with no end in sight to the dispute over pay, jobs and conditions, the action is set to continue.

Last week the union rejected a pay offer from train operators to stave off further strikes. The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, had earlier offered the RMT a pay rise of 8 per cent over two years with a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies until April 2024.

Downing Street on Monday rejected RMT general secretary Mick Lynch’s call for a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister.

“We are not seeking to impose government over and above either the independent pay review process or ongoing discussions between employers and the unions,” the Prime Minister's spokesman said.

“We won’t be changing the process.”

Healthcare staff

Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and ambulance workers represented by the GMB, Unite and Unison unions are pushing ahead with strikes in December in a dispute over pay and working conditions within the National Health Service (NHS).

All three unions, representing about 25,000 ambulance workers, will strike on December 21.

Members of the British Army and civil servants are being given special training to fill in the gaps in services during strike days. Reports suggest up to 3,000 military personnel and civil servants will be drafted in, but the government has not confirmed the figure.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman on Monday told reporters “significant disruption” to NHS services is expected. He declined to say whether the Prime Minister believed the strike could result in the loss of patient lives.

“The public should be prepared for disruption,” the spokesman said. He added that there would be “significant disruption in the service that the NHS is able to provide for the public.”

Members of the military will be on hand to assist with ambulance services. Their duties could include transporting ambulances from call-outs back to bases, if paramedics have to remain to provide care, it is understood. They are also expected to drive ambulances to non-urgent calls. It remains unclear whether soldiers will drive ambulances to emergency requests for help.

The percentage pay increase ambulance workers get depends on their current salary. Unions claim some workers will receive just over 4 per cent extra in pay, while the Department for Health and Social Care points out that some lower paid staff will get an increase of 9.3 per cent.

Unite described salaries for ambulance workers in recent years as a “12-year assault on pay”. Workers voted for strike action over the government’s pay award amid soaring inflation, which stands at 11 per cent.

Nurses will walkout on December 15 and 20.

The RCN has argued that despite a pay rise of around £1,400 awarded in the summer, experienced nurses are worse off by 20 per cent in real terms due to successive below-inflation awards since 2010.

Steven Barclay, the Health Secretary, is not prepared to accept the union's offer to suspend the strike in return for pay talks, Downing Street has indicated.

“I think he’s been clear that he’s always willing to meet with the Royal College of Nursing,” Mr Sunak's spokesman said.

But pressed on whether he is willing to talk to the union about pay, the official said: “The position on pay has not changed, that’s rightly for an independent review body to decide.”

A Royal Mail employee at the 'National Postal Workers Strike Rally' outside Buckingham Palace in London. Bloomberg

Border Force

Military personnel and civil servants are being trained in case they are required to be drafted in at ports and airports, as border staff prepare to strike for eight days from December 23 to New Year’s Eve.

The walkouts over the busy Christmas travel season could force flights to be cancelled.

The action will affect passport checks at Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow airports, Among others.

The government said that Border Force would deploy enough staff to “meet critical demand” but warned “those entering the UK should be prepared for potential disruption.” It also warned of longer than usual waiting times at airports for incoming travellers.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union representing Border Force staff, announced the dates after 100,000 members in 214 government departments and other public bodies voted to strike. The walkouts stem from a row with the government over pay, pensions, job security and redundancy terms. Staff are seeking a 10 per cent pay rise.

Heathrow has said the majority of passengers are not expected to be affected.

“We are doing everything we can to protect a full flight schedule on strike days, so departing passengers should expect to travel as normal,” a representative for the UK's busiest airport said.

Royal Mail

Royal Mail staff are striking amid a long-running and worsening dispute about pay and working conditions.

Last month the Communication Workers Union said there would be walkouts on December 1, 9, 11, 14, 15, 23 and 24.

CWU general secretary Dave Ward previously said: “Posties are in the fight of their lives against the “Uberisation” of Royal Mail and the destruction of their conditions.

“But 115,000 of our members will not just accept this war on their livelihoods and their industry.”

The public has been advised to post their Christmas mail early as sacks began to pile up in warehouses earlier this month at the beginning of strikes.

Strikes across Britain — in pictures

Updated: December 12, 2022, 4:09 PM
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