UK strikes: More than just a matter of money

Ben Birchall/PA/AP
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union stand on the picket line outside Bristol Temple Meads train station as union members take part in a strike over jobs, pay, and conditions, in Bristol, England, July 27, 2022.
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For nearly 50 years, British workers have been relatively quiescent. But this summer they have launched a series of rolling strikes that would put their French counterparts to shame.

Railway workers, doctors, postal workers, and barristers are just some of the groups going on strike for higher wages – and disrupting wide sectors of the economy in pursuit of their goals.

Why We Wrote This

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A highly unusual wave of strikes in Britain suggests that fears of a recession and resentment at lagging pay rises are sharpened by a sense of social injustice.

The strikes have been especially drawn out because the government has been adamant in limiting public sector salaries. But behind this summer’s explosion of labor unrest is “10 years’ worth of inflation that hasn’t been matched by wages,” says employment lawyer James Conley.

Widespread resentment at this state of affairs has been sharpened by a sense of injustice; wage inequality has been widening in the United Kingdom this year faster than anywhere else in Europe besides Estonia.

A fear of recession, which threatens to bring layoffs and pay cuts, has fed a sense that Britain is at a breaking point where something has to be done. This summer of discontent, says labor activist Tatiana Garavito, has exposed “a growing dissatisfaction in the U.K. with how things are working.”

Unlike their neighbors in France, Britons aren’t exactly famed for going on strike; “keep calm and carry on” and “stiff upper lips” are more their style.

But a current wave of strikes in Britain, the likes of which have not been seen for nearly half a century, is challenging that image.

The highest inflation rates for 40 years, spiraling energy prices, and the government’s refusal to meet employees’ demands for pay rises to match those increases have created “a perfect storm” after years of smoldering discontent, says teacher Rob Poole, who has had to put up with below-inflation pay rises for more than a decade.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

A highly unusual wave of strikes in Britain suggests that fears of a recession and resentment at lagging pay rises are sharpened by a sense of social injustice.

“We’ve had 10 years’ worth of inflation that hasn’t been matched by wages,” adds employment lawyer James Conley. “Staff are so much worse off now that those areas of the workforce that are heavily unionized” such as the public sector “are looking to do something.”

The result has been a “summer of discontent,” with rolling strikes disrupting broad areas of the economy. Rail workers brought trains to a halt nationwide again on Saturday, and dock workers at Britain’s largest port, Felixstowe, launched an eight-day strike over the weekend in support of wage demands.

On Monday, barristers in England and Wales announced they would strike indefinitely from Sept. 5 to back demands for a 25% salary increase.

“When they go on strike, you know there’s a more systemic issue with pay and inflation that crosses professions,” says Mr. Conley.

A sense of injustice

Behind the pay demands lie a decade of cutbacks in public services and social welfare schemes, growing resentment at corporate and political hypocrisy, and a widening gap between rich and poor people. Inequality has risen faster in the United Kingdom than anywhere else in Europe except Estonia, since energy prices began to rise this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

A sense of injustice underpins the newfound zest for strikes, bringing together ordinary people from myriad jobs and professions, says British-Colombian labor activist Tatiana Garavito. She sees this summer as a watershed moment exposing “a growing dissatisfaction in the U.K. with how things are working.”  

After 50 years of relative quiescence, British workers are turning to the kind of industrial action more common in Latin America, she says, where “the material realities of people … are urgent.”

Doctors, nurses, teachers, postal workers, airport baggage handlers, bus drivers, container port staff, and barristers are among a dozen professions going on strike. But it is Britain’s railway workers, backed by large trade unions, and grinding the rail network to a halt, that have lit the spark that has inspired others. 

The voice of the summer’s discontent has belonged to Mick Lynch, the unflappable leader of the transport workers’ trade union turned folk hero. His no-nonsense rebuttal of critical journalists and politicians has won wide public admiration, set social media platform TikTok alight, and rekindled public sympathy for trade unions at a time when just 23% of U.K. employees are union members, a record low. 

Mr. Lynch’s campaigning has been a boon for the union movement.

“People have, for a long time, questioned why they are paying fees to unions,” says Mr. Conley. “It’s a little bit of posturing from unions to assert their dominance, make themselves appear more boisterous and more effective. They’ve clearly struck a nerve.”

Mr. Lynch’s booming rallying calls against “a government of billionaires” have also appealed to disgruntled workers in other professions less accustomed to striking, such as doctors and nurses. Worn down by the pandemic, they have been offered just a 1% pay rise after two years at the negotiating table.

In that time, “glaring differences between the rhetoric of politicians clapping for key workers during the pandemic and the way they have been treated in the workplace” have become apparent, says Mr. Poole, co-founder of a virtual map of picket line locations.

“Rank hypocrisy”

For Tim Colledge, a physiotherapist working in the state-run National Health Service, “rank hypocrisy is politicizing many [of us] who aren’t usually politically minded.”

Though Britain is no stranger to charges of political hypocrisy, recent instances of rule breaking by officials, including outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have added to a sense of a ruling class that is dodging its responsibilities. And demands for more corporate responsibility have also fueled discontent.

British shipping company P&O Ferries recently fired nearly 800 employees and immediately replaced them with foreign workers on the minimum wage. Oil giant BP recorded its biggest profit in 14 years, while energy firms say they are planning to charge consumers this autumn more than twice as much as they paid a year earlier. In August, workers at Amazon’s biggest U.K. warehouse walked out, rejecting a 35p (42 cents) per hour pay rise.

Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Communication Workers Union members stand on a picket line during a strike outside the BT Tower in London, July 29, 2022.

The summer of discontent reverses a three-decade decline in industrial action. Anti-trade union laws passed between 1980 and 1993 mean that the U.K. has the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe, which “make actually going on strike difficult,” says Mr. Poole. 

But a growing “yearning for connections” with climate change and racial and gender-equality movements has spurred more union activism, suggests Ms. Garavito.

Multifaceted solidarity has been a hallmark of past labor movements in Britain, notably before World War I, when major labor strikes coincided with the women’s suffrage movement. 

The coal miners’ strike of the 1980s, which bitterly divided the country, gained many “fervent supporters from many walks of life,” recalls historian Sheila Rowbotham, while Black and South Asian women often joined forces to protest against racial discrimination and gender inequality, as well as workplace conditions.

This summer, though, the overriding factors driving the strikers appear to be economic. “It comes down to a genuine fear of recession,” argues Mr. Conley. “You’ll get lots of people made redundant, or having to take a pay cut. There is a general consensus that this is a breaking point, and something has to be done.”

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