Why the British are suddenly so keen on strikes – DW – 03/13/2023

Around 40,000 junior doctors in the UK began a three-day strike on Monday that is expected to disrupt the country’s healthcare system even more than recent industrial action by nurses and ambulance workers.

A wave of strikes has disrupted life in Britain as workers react to decades of inflation, which hit 11.1% in October 2022.

In recent months, public transport workers, teachers, postal workers and border officials have walked out to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

Until recently, many Britons taunted French or German workers because they believed their continental colleagues were “always on strike” and that such strikes were bad for business.

But as the UK emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of Brexit began to take hold, the country’s economic malaise was plain to see.

Britain’s opportunities are crippled by neglect

Years of austerity following the 2008 financial crisis have so weakened public services that they often struggle to provide basic support. The National Health Service (NHS) is collapsing under the strain of an aging and increasingly unhealthy population and a huge backlog of treatments that have been delayed during the pandemic.

Striking workers are complaining about successive Conservative governments’ obsession with efficiency gains, which they say have led to years of underinvestment, unfair workloads and falling real incomes. Worse still, the full economic impact of Brexit has yet to be felt.

“Britain has experienced the longest period of real wage stagnation since the early 19th century over the past 12 years,” Scott Lavery, a lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield, told DW. “Since the financial crisis, we have seen a sustained decline in real wages.”

Real incomes – after adjusting for inflation – have fallen by 5.1% since December 2007, according to the UK government. Coupled with the inflationary crisis, which Lavery said is “drastically eroding living standards”, British workers are struggling to stay afloat.

The cost of living crisis has also hit British small businesses hardCredit: David Cliff/NurPhoto/Picture Alliance

Britons are fighting to catch up

French workers have also recently taken to the streets because of rising inflation. But her main priority is to oppose proposed reforms of the country’s generous pension system, which allows people to retire at 62. German unions, meanwhile, have managed to negotiate several anti-inflationary wage deals, including one with Deutsche Post last weekend that favored low earners even trainees.

“In France there is a sense of defending an existing standard of living, while in Britain people feel that everything that once existed is gone,” Sam Moorecroft, vice-president of the Trades Union Council in the city of Sheffield, told the DW .

Moorecroft believes the seeds of today’s misery were sown in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher took office as Prime Minister and proceeded to crush the union movement. She blamed the generous pro-union legislation introduced by the Labor Party which has allowed widespread strikes to bring the country to its knees.

“When Thatcher defeated the miners in the 1980s, many believed that unionism had been completely defeated. But now there is a step to return to the same level of union participation as in the past,” added Moorecroft.

That ambition is yet to be seen in the stats. Union membership peaked in 1979 and by 2021 had more than halved to 23.1% of the workforce, or 6.44 million people. Union members are typically over 35 years old and almost half have worked for the same company for a decade or more, but that is changing.

Can young people restore balance?

Unions are targeting younger workers who are more likely to earn minimum wage, a third of whom are on zero-hour contracts. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) recently calculated that almost 90% of the UK’s under-30s with low to middle incomes work in the private sector, which is largely non-union.

The Low Pay Commission, which advises the UK government, found last month that many UK employers were failing to include annual increases in the national minimum wage – a phenomenon known as wage theft. Before the pandemic, around 22% of minimum-wage earners were underpaid, but by April 2022 that number had grown to nearly a third.

Moorecroft highlighted how non-union workplaces are increasingly campaigning for better wages and working conditions, citing a recent strike at Amazon’s largest UK logistics center in Coventry. About 300 workers at the warehouse, which has 1,400 employees, have walked out multiple times over the past two months due to low wages and grueling around-the-clock shift patterns.

While the US tech company’s French and German workers have previously staged several strikes, particularly related to Black Friday sales, Amazon has so far refused to recognize the UK GMB union, which fights for the rights of the company’s workers in the UK .

In December, the Royal College of Nursing called on its members to strike for the first time everImage: Maja Smiejkowska/REUTERS

Strikes receive more public support

Public support for strikes in the UK has always been mixed as memories of the winter of discontent linger. In the coldest months of 1978-79, the country was paralyzed by large-scale strikes in the private and public sectors, resulting in food shortages, weeks of uncollected garbage and, in one city, unburied dead.

This time, however, with public services already broken, the cost of living crisis hitting everyone’s pockets and living standards lower than a decade ago, public support for strikes is noticeably higher.

A Sky News poll in January found that 63% of Brits have strong or somewhat support for strikes by healthcare workers, with 49% supporting broader public sector action.

“There is certainly a feeling that these core public sector workers who have kept the economy afloat during the pandemic have strong public support…nurses in particular, despite the potentially life-threatening consequences of their strikes,” Lavery said.

Sunak’s government under pressure

Recent signs of progress in ending wage disputes are encouraging, although the government has argued that anti-inflationary wage increases would push up prices. Nurses, midwives and ambulances called off their planned strikes last week as negotiations looked positive.

However, the UK is unlikely to move towards a more European labor market structure. After all, the country’s decision to leave the EU was based on a promise to create a tax-friendly Singapore on the Thames. The country’s high debt last year forced workers into a 70-year tax burden, putting that dream on hold for now.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proposed new law in January that would enforce “minimum service levels” in key areas of the public sector, including education and healthcare, which would make strikes more difficult.

“[This] would discourage some workers from taking legal industrial action,” Lavery told DW. “Britain already has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in the western world, and Sunak is trying to tighten them further… so he’s far from a peacemaker .”

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey

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