Trade unionists from across the UK marched in London earlier this month to protest low pay and the rising cost of living. Image: Eliza Pitkin / The Big Issue
Industrial action is escalating across the UK as inflation soars and the cost of living bites. Here are some of the major strikes taking place or being threatened.
You may have noticed that the biggest rail strike in 30 years just took place with tens of thousands of staff members walking out over pay and job disputes.
Unions say the strikes could mark the start of a 1970s-style “summer of discontent” with teachers, NHS staff and bin workers all threatening walkouts as inflation soars towards 10 per cent.
Criminal barristers are in their second of action, after rejecting the government’s offer of a 15 per cent rise to fees. This week they’re upping the ante, with three days of action planned, rising next week to four, and continuing until they walkout for an entire week unless the Ministry of Justice agrees to up the legal aid budget to pay them 25 per cent more, starting immediately.
Workers at BT have voted resoundingly for strike action, making it the first national call centre strike in UK history. The decision comes less than a week after The Big Issue reported that a “food bank” was set up in a BT call centre for its own staff to use.
“I think there are many unions that are balloting across the country because people can’t take it any more. We’ve got people doing full time jobs who are having to take state benefits and use food banks. That is a national disgrace,” said Mick Lynch, general secretary of union RMT, which is organised the rail strike.
Gary Smith, general secretary of union GMB, has said he would be willing to coordinate strike action with other unions in order to “leverage our power”. Smith has denied that unions are already planning a national strike but warned it could happen unless ministers and employers concede to workers’ demands for pay to match inflation.
Here are some of the major strikes, and strike ballots that could affect you this summer.
Rail and Tube workers
Three days of 24 hour walkouts by members of the RMT union are over, but an agreement between union and rail bosses hasn’t been reached. Only a fifth of train services ran on the third day of action, and half of lines had to close.
Mick Lynch has said that he won’t rule out further strike action, as there seems to eb with little sign of a breakthrough in negotiations.
“Strike action’s not ruled out and it will have to take place if we do not get a deal, but we’re hoping that we can get a deal and we get some compromise,” Lynch told workers at a picket line outside Euston Station.
“It’s quite odd. The people who are running this country are brought up on a diet of Latin and Greek and our members are brought up on a diet of getting up at ungodly times to run the transport system. I think there’s a bit of disconnect there.
“If we had people who were used to doing work we might get a better deal out of them.”
Unions must give a minimum of 14 days notice to employers before industrial action begins. The dispute is over pay and conditions. RMT, which represents rail workers ranging from catering staff to signallers, is calling for a pay rise of at least 7 per cent, after two to three years of stagnating wages.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has accused unions of trying to “drag the railway back to the 1970s” and urged them to negotiate with employers.
Speaking in the Commons, he said the strike was “orchestrated by some of the best-paid union barons representing some of the better-paid workers in this country”.
Teachers / Education strikes
Up to 450,000 teachers could be walking out of classrooms this summer as the National Education Union (NEU) has said it is preparing to hold a ballot. The action could lead to strikes in schools across the country, some of which may have to temporarily shut.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi put forward a pay rise of 3 per cent for teachers earlier this year, but with inflation currently at 9 per cent and expected to continue rising until at least October, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary, has said unless the government offers “significantly” more, the union is prepared to ballot.
The School Teachers’ Review Body, the independent panel that advises the government on pay, reportedly told the Department for Education (DfE) that it recommends a 5 per cent rise for experienced teachers. Joint secretary Mary Bousted welcomed the suggestion, but said it would still amount to a pay cut after taking into account inflation.
NASUWT, another teachers’ union, also warned it would ballot members on industrial action from November in England, Scotland and Wales.
Crown court lawyers
Criminal barristers have entered their second week of strike action, having rejected the government’s offer of a 15 per cent fee increase from the end of September. They’re asking for 25 per cent to be implemented immediately.
The Criminal Bar Association announced that the “days of action” would begin with a two day walkout starting the week of June 27, increasing in regularity over the coming weeks. It’s worth mentioning that the last time barristers went on strike, it was called off after just one and a half days.
Lawyers working in criminal justice say they cannot make a living any more, with many moving into other types of law where there is better pay. This further adds to strain existing criminal lawyers are put under, and adds to the huge backlog of cases. They’re asking for an immediate 25 per cent fee increase.
“Members of the criminal Bar have been feeling mistreated, undervalued and overwhelmed for a decade or more. The criminal justice system has been politicised by figures wishing to make political capital but unwilling to match the rhetoric with action and funding,” said Mark Fenhalls QC, Chair of the Bar Council.
Coventry bin drivers
HGV bin drivers in Coventry have been on strike since January, and have warned they might not be returning to work for another 18 months.
Labour-led Coventry council has used emergency powers to bring in private waste collectors Tom White, leading to accusations of undermining the right to strike.
The members of union Unite are demanding they be paid “the market rate for the job”.
“The truth is that Coventry Council is squandering millions in a failed attempt to break the strike, money that would be far better spent addressing low pay in this workforce and supporting local people through the cost of living crisis,” said Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite.
The city council has denied that the bin drivers are poorly-paid and extended its contract with contractor Tom White until September.
NHS and health workers
Unison, the biggest union representing NHS staff, has warned that unless the government offers a pay rise close to inflation there could be a mass exodus of employees and industrial action in already stretched hospitals.
Its general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The government has a simple choice. Either it makes a sensible pay award, investing in staff and services and reducing delays for patients.
“Or it risks a potential dispute, growing workforce shortages and increased suffering for the sick.”
The BT Group is facing its first national strike years after the Communication Workers Union gave bosses an ultimatum to improve pay.
A huge 91.5 per cent of British Telecom workers and 95.8 per cent of employees at Openreach voted for strike action, resulting in what will be the first national call centre walkout in UK history.
Workers had been offered a flat rate pay rise of £1,500, but the CWU highlighted that this amounts to 3.37 per cent to 7.89 per cent salary rise, well below inflation and therefore amounting to a pay cut.
“We believe this is the first time in UK history that call centre workers across multiple site across the United Kingdom have voted to strike…. without these workers you wouldn’t have seen the home working revolution that took place (during the pandemic),” said Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, announcing the result.
“Call centre workers are some of the most casualised and isolated workforces in this country. They are notoriously difficult to organise, and the unprecedented vote they have taken today demonstrates the anger so many people feel in this country today,” he continued.
Post Office and Royal Mail workers
Also represented by the CWU, about 1,500 Post Office workers are to stage a further one-day strike, having already walked out in May and June. This next 24-hour strike will force Britain’s 114 Crown Post Offices to close on Monday July 11.
“After the first two actions in May and June, we agreed to talks with Post Office leaders last week and, as a gesture of good faith we decided to pause further strikes in the genuine hope that a resolution could be found through negotiation,” said CWU assistant secretary Andy Furey.
“But, as reported last week their pay position only increased by a half of a per cent and this frankly insulting proposal was clearly not a serious attempt on the part of the management to find an agreed settlement,” he continued.
The CWU has also begun balloting its 115,000 members at Royal Mail. This looks likely to be the biggest vote on industrial action since Unison unsuccessfully balloted its local government members earlier this year.
The government states that a minimum of 50 per cent of a union’s members must vote in a strike ballot for it to be recognised.
British Airways workers at London Heathrow airport
British Airways check-in and ground staff at London’s Heathrow airport have voted to strike this summer. The BA employees are members of two unions: GMB whose members back industrial action by 91 per cent, and Unite, which said that 94 per cent of its members voted to strike.
The unions say a 10 per cent pay cut was imposed on staff over the pandemic, when runways sat disused and empty. But their full level of pay has not been reinstated, despite airports functioning at high capacity.
BA offered staff a 10 per cent “payment”, but union bosses say a one-off payment won’t cut it, and are demanding their members’ full salaries be reinstated.
More than 700 BA staff could take part in the strike, adding to the disruption Heathrow has faced recently. Mountains of baggage started to build up inside the terminal as staff shortages and increased demand from travellers put the airport under pressure.