Employment

Christmas on the picket line: What it's like being on strike during the festive season

There will be fewer presents under the tree in homes across Britain, where workers have downed tools in the hope that short-term pain will lead to long term gain

Postal workers on the picket line at the Bristol mail centre. Image: CWU South West

Britain is on strike. The pursuit of an inflation-softening pay rise has left the country facing the most significant wave of industrial action since the miner’s strike raged under Margaret Thatcher. This October saw more days lost to strike action than any month in the last 11 years, and the situation has only intensified. Strikes are taking place every day this December and many look likely to continue into 2023.

Is it a general strike? No, not in the traditional sense. But a de facto one, as Dave Ward, the union leader behind the postal workers strike, has suggested, is hardly a stretch. In an unprecedented move, Britain is set to face the first national nursing strike called by the Royal College of Nursing in its 106-year history. Civil servants, university lecturers, teachers and health workers will all down tools this December. 

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Paramedics, too, are planning to walkout as part of coordinated action across three unions. And railway workers have unleashed travel chaos by announcing strike dates in mid-December – peak Christmas shopping period – and when railway maintenance usually takes place, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. Smaller disputes, too, have raged in towns across Britain – including ex-miners who found themselves back on the picket lines at the National Coal Mining Museum.

And picket lines are cold places to be this time of year. 

“As the weather changes and becomes more miserable this time of year it’s pretty obvious that people are not just standing outside to be awkward,” one employee who has been on strike since October 20 told The Big Issue. You heard right, that’s a seven week strike, and counting.

They are one of around 60 factory workers at Quorn’s Billingham factory, near Middlesbrough, who are on indefinite strike to get better pay. 

“The effect on me personally has been exhausting honestly,” they say. “The cost has been enormous, we’ve all lost a massive amount of money, the financial support and donations from Unite and fellow union members has been a huge source of support but obviously it isn’t as good as being at work.” 

The strikers originally asked for a pay rise of 9 per cent, but as the weeks have passed, they’ve now offered to settle at 6 per cent.

With the Christmas countdown well underway, it’s looking less likely there will be full stockings under the tree. “Christmas has been scaled back for most of us, I’ve had to hold off on buying presents for friends and family and most likely won’t be able to this year.

“But we’re willing to put up with significant discomfort and miserable cold to make our bosses listen to us.”

And let’s not forget that the public are having a rough time as a result of it. While Quorn has reassured its customers there will not be a shortage of the vegetarian meat-substitute, it is indisputable that postal, train and NHS strikes have, or will, cause immense disruption. 

Paramedics who are set to strike have admitted that there may not be ambulances available to go to any call-outs other than “life threatening” ones, meaning elderly people who fall, will just have to wait. Though, they stress, this is frequently the situation anyway, such is the NHS staffing crisis. 

So why are they doing it? Putting themselves, and the public, through a festive season that has already been hit by soaring energy bills, freezing temperatures and eye-wateringly expensive groceries.

“It’s horrible to think about the impact of this strike on our clients,” says Shelter worker Carys Lennon, hands in mittens on an east London picket line. “But the fact of the matter is, if we don’t do something now, my colleagues and myself can’t afford to stay working here. And if no one works here, our clients won’t get the help they need.” 

Lennon has worked at the charity Shelter for two and a half years, helping formerly homeless people settle into their new homes. But looking at her bank balance, the sums aren’t adding up anymore. 

“When I got into Shelter, I just thought, wow, I’ve got a contract, I’ve got a good salary coming in, I can depend on it, I thought that was it and I was sorted for the long haul,” she says. “But to know now that something like this can happen, a cost of living crisis, inflation can rise and your employer won’t keep up with our rate of inflation, I didn’t see it coming.”

Workers at Shelter are on strike for two weeks this December, that’s two weeks without pay – though union Unite does offer £70 per day in subsistence pay. “We’re going to have to make some cutbacks, we’re just going to have to make it work for us and our families and our loved ones over Christmas,’ she adds. 

Realistically, Lennon says, after 15 years in London she’s going to have to start thinking about leaving the city, because it’s becoming unaffordable to live on wages that are decreasing in value by the month. Or she leaves this job – a job that makes her feel so fulfilled, where she can make some of the most marginalised people’s lives a little bit better – for something better paid in the private sector. What a decision to be forced to make. 

“This is a winter that no one’s going to forget, we’ve never seen something like this in a generation,” says Jason Kirkham, who has worked in the ambulance service almost half his life, starting out as an emergency medical technician aged just 20, and progressing to a paramedic.

Paramedics across three unions are going on strike to demand better wages, though it’s not simply a case of fattening their paypackets. “I do genuinely believe we are at a point that we have to do something to save the NHS,” he says, because staff shortages create ambulance quotes outside hospitals and emergency calls stack up. 

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If it goes ahead – and Kirkham will be hoping to the last hour that “the government will see sense and just come and talk to us” – this will be the first national ambulance strike since 1990. 

“The children are conscious that money is a lot more tight this year,” he says. “They know they won’t be getting as many Christmas presents as they would ordinarily have had if we had the spare money.”

“So it’ll probably be a quieter Christmas this year, we’ll be spending it with family when we can, around my shifts, but there won’t be the big celebrations.”

All of the workers we spoke to described how much their Christmas has been impacted by not only the strike action, but the cost of living crisis they’re trying to fight against. They are all planning smaller, more modest celebrations, with fewer presents, and let’s be honest, a little less light and joy. 

But it takes a huge leap of faith to take such action. Faith that things can be better, they can be fixed. 

“I think I’ll look back on this winter with so much pride,” says Lennon, in between waving at bus drivers and cars honking their horns as they pass the Shelter picket line. “I’m so proud of all my colleagues. And not just my colleagues, workers across all sectors, coming together to fight for the right thing that is fair pay.

“We’re not asking for anything massive. It’s not a huge demand. These are modest demands. But if we’re not getting it without the fight, then we’re willing to fight for it.”

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