Written by Anoushka Patel
Edited by Annika Lilja
If you’ve been keeping an eye on British news headlines for the past few weeks, you have probably noticed that the front pages have been dominated by the ongoing strike action in the public sector, ranging from nurses to railway workers. These strikes have created chaos in the UK, with only 1 in 5 trains set to run and A&E services have been forced into a gridlock with a record waiting time for ambulances. The dispute between unions and the government over pay has been continuing for some months now, with no end in sight. Here are some answers to key questions about the strikes.
Which professions are striking and what are their pay claims?
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has announced further strikes on the 18th and 19th of January.
Pat Cullen, leader of the RCN, has led 465,000 nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants and nursing students into strike action for the first time in the union’s 106-year history. The union is asking for a 19% pay increase.
While public support for emergency workers and nurses’ strikes has remained strong at 66% according to a poll by YouGov, health secretary Steve Barclay has echoed the sentiment of those who oppose the strikes, claiming that “nurses going on strike is in nobody’s best interest.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has come under fire for initially refusing to answer whether or not he himself uses the NHS or pays for a private GP, however has since said that although he has used “independent healthcare in the past” he is currently registered with an NHS doctor.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) carried out strikes before the New Year and most recently from the 6th to the 7th of January.
The RMT wants a pay offer reflecting the cost of living and inflation, as well as a guarantee of no compulsory job losses. It has rejected the proposed 4% pay rise in 2023 by Network Rail, with the union leader Mick Lynch describing the deal as “substandard.”
Another teachers' strike took place in Scotland on 10 and 11 January, having already had strikes in November and December of last year.
A 6.85% increase for the lowest paid was rejected, with teachers arguing for 10% to keep up with inflation.
Teaching unions in England and Wales have been voting on whether their members will strike. So far, the NASUWT union has had nine out of ten teachers who voted supporting strike action – however, turnout was at 42%, which is below the level needed for lawful strike action. Several other unions such as the NEU (the largest education union in the UK) have yet to declare their results, so there is the possibility that if strikes go ahead, primary and secondary schools are likely to be shut for several days towards the end of January.
Other professions who have gone on strike or plan to strike later this month are: Border Force members, Royal Mail workers, bus drivers, driving examiners, highway workers, university staff, firefighters and ambulance workers.
Why are so many people striking?
The soaring cost of living in the U.K. is certainly helping to drive the walkouts. Inflation rose to a 40 year high at 11.1% in the 12 months to October 2022, and the world’s largest economies are grappling with price pressures as the war in Ukraine keeps energy and food prices elevated. But in Britain, the global economic pressures follow a decade of the government cutting down on public spending, emboldening public workers in their demands for higher pay settlements.
So far, pay increases offered by the government have been rejected by unions because they would result in a real terms pay cut for workers. Pay rises above inflation are called real terms pay rises because yearly wages increase more than inflation (a measure of the change in the cost of living). When pay rises are below the level of inflation, they can be considered real terms pay cuts as prices are rising quicker than yearly wage increases, which means your income won’t go as far. Therefore, proposed pay rises at 3-4% fall far too short of what is needed to combat years of wage stagnation and the cost-of-living crisis.
Much of the blame has been pointed at the Conservative Party, who have been in power for the last 12 years. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been heavily criticised for introducing new anti-strike laws, which mean that ministers intend to make industrial action illegal in some sectors if minimum service levels are not met. The Times reported that the legislation would enforce minimum service levels in six sectors, including the health service, rail, education, fire and border security, which would require a proportion of union members to continue working.
Is there a solution?
With more strike action planned and the government continuing to condemn strikers, it appears that there won’t be any concessions made by either side for now. A recent interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and Rishi Sunak has signaled that although he is unlikely to give out the large pay rises unions are hoping for, his stance on the issue has softened from the harsh rhetoric used in previous weeks. Pat Cullen, the leader of the nurse’s union said she thought this was a “chink of light.”
Barclay Steve. “Nurses going on strike is in nobody’s best interest.” Gov.uk, Department of Health and Social Care, 13 Nov. 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nurses-going-on-strike-is-in-nobodys-best-interest
Topham Gwyn. “Only one in five British trains to run on final day of planned strikes.” The Guardian, 7 Jan. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/jan/07/rail-british-trains-final-day-strikes-rmt-aslef
ITV News. “What is the ‘minimum service’ strike legislation the government is set to bring in?” ITV News, 5 Jan. 2023, https://www.itv.com/news/2023-01-05/what-is-the-new-minimum-service-strike-legislation-poised-to-be-brought-in
Morris Joanna. “Nurses and ambulance workers have the most public support during Britain’s winter of strikes.” YouGov, 20 Dec. 2022, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/12/20/nurses-and-ambulance-workers-have-most-public-supp
Shaw Esther. “What workers are going on strike and when?” The Times, 5 Jan. 2023, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/money-mentor/article/strike-dates/
Evans Alice. “Teachers’ strikes: What are they paid and will schools close?” BBC News, 6 Jan. 2023, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-63283289
Sommerlad Joe. “UK rail strikes: Who is RMT leader Mick Lynch?” Independent, 13 Dec. 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/mick-lynch-train-rail-strikes-rmt-b2132215.html
Andersson Jasmine. “Pat Cullen: Who is the RCN nursing union boss leading strikes?” BBC News, 22 Dec. 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/mick-lynch-train-rail-strikes-rmt-b2132215.html