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Britain on strike: Have we reached boiling point?

Six months of strikes, whole industries on the edge, services collapsing and stalemate in talks. What's next for a nation that's had enough?

Illustration: The Big Issue

The last ten days have seen hundreds of thousands of people walk out of workplaces across Britain.

On Wednesday February 1, an estimated 500,000 people took a stand demanding better pay and conditions. At what could be the most northerly strike in Britain, search and rescue coastguards on Shetland staged a windswept two-person picket. The award for the longest picket-line, if someone was measuring, might go to staff at the University of Cambridge, lined up outside the Department of Earth Sciences with a four-metre banner reading “the longer the picket… the shorter the strike”. 

And in Nottingham, lone driving examiner Paul Farrant staged a one-man picket, telling the Big Issue: “it was one of the proudest moments of my working life to stand up for myself and my colleagues.” 

Days later, we saw the biggest strike in the 75-year history of the NHS on Monday 6. Nurses, ambulance workers, midwives and physiotherapists all took to picket lines over their week in protest of the dire state of a health service that has been ravaged by spending cuts and is haemorrhaging staff. 

With new strikes announced almost every day and disruption of services affecting even the most mundane elements of our everyday lives, for many of us, it feels like a never-ending battle of wills between two equally stubborn sides.  

“There’s always a boiling point”, says trade unions historian Dr Edda Nicolson, when an industrial dispute cannot escalate any further and there is “either a capitulation or an agreement”.

But are we nearly there yet?

The national strikes started last summer, first with posties at the Communication Workers Union taking action in early May, after being offered a measly 2 per cent pay rise over two years, with inflation already at 7.9 per cent. 

This was followed by railway workers with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) in June, then bin workers, barristers, council staff, until a wave of anguish at falling value of people’s pay engulfed Britain’s most essential sectors. 

Inflation continued to rise into autumn last year, peaking at a staggering 11 per cent in October, significantly devaluing the money in all our pockets. But the cost of living crisis is not being felt evenly across Britain. The gap between growth in private sector pay and in the public sector is at its highest ever. And these are services already working on shoestring budgets after years of austerity.

The purpose of industrial action is to cause as much disruption as possible by withdrawing the human resource central to its running. And boy have the strikes been disruptive. 

More than 450,000 working days were lost due to strike action in November 2022, highest for a decade, as reported by the Office for National Statistics. The National Education Union estimates that around 85 per cent of schools had to partially, or fully close, due to the strike.

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“As the cost-of-living crisis escalated during the Summer and Autumn of last year, the Conservatives were distracted by their own difficulties: the overthrowing of Boris Johnson, a long and drawn-out leadership election and the coup against its victor Liz Truss,” Dr Stephen Williams, work and employment relations expert at Portsmouth University told The Big Issue. 

“There is little evidence that the government undertook any preparations, despite the labour unrest anticipated to arise as a consequence of the convergence of the long-term decline in real wages and the short-term cost-of-living crisis”, he continued. 

After more than nine months of national protests and failed negotiations with union leaders, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak finally unveiled his plan to bring the industrial action to a close – by making striking for better pay and conditions futile. 

Pushed through parliament at lightning speed, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would force workers to maintain a skeleton service in health sectors, rail, education, fire and border security, on strike days, or face losing their jobs. 

The Department for Transport’s own impact assessment of the bill warned that it could increase the number of strikes, increase frequency of action short of strike. It could even exacerbate the chronic staff shortage responsible for the limping services on non-strike days, by forcing managers to fire those who refuse to break the strike. 

Unions and human rights campaigners have responded in uproar to the proposed legislation, with Paul Nowak, recently elected as the new leader of the Trades Union Congress, calling the law “spiteful”, “unworkable” and “almost certainly illegal”.

After years of declining trade union power, Nicolson suggests there has been a “deskilling” in government of how to deal with them. Thatcher was supposed to have dealt unions a fatal blow, so it seems the managerial class of Tory ministers received little preparation on how to handle these threatening revenants.

“They just think if we could just make this go away, then they don’t have to do anything about it”, she says. But, like most things, it’s necessary to treat the cause, not just the symptom. 

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So, back to the question of the boiling point. We haven’t reached it yet, says Nicolson, “although it’s probably close.” 

She believes February 1 was a “testing of the waters”, but more is yet to come before either the unions call off all their action, or the government responds and negotiates.

Support for trade unions is rising, according to research from Sky News, despite public services being brought to a standstill. Out of more than 2,000 adults, 37 per cent said they support unions in January, up from 35 per cent in November.

Nicolson thinks there is a likelihood that trade union membership will grow as more people become engaged in the movement – 40,000 teachers joined the NEU in the fortnight before February 1 alone. 

She predicts the next phase of Britain on strike will see longer, more intense strikes, as union members dig their heels into the fight. 

But the financial strain of striking may start to have an impact on those already struggling. Workers aren’t paid to strike, despite popular myth that they are, and the lost income stretches creaking bank balances further. 

Credit card debt has soared to the highest amount since 2004, and charity StepChange warned of a “real danger” that people will increasingly turn to credit to pay for the essentials.

The government has so far insisted that if there’s not enough money to give a pay rise to everyone, they won’t give it to anyone. 

But, says Nicolson, “we know they’re a government used to U-turns”.

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