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Will there be a general strike in 2023?

“It’s almost like a de facto general strike taking place by the amount of disputes” claimed one union leader.

Unions, food banks and MPs have joined forced to launch Enough is Enough, a campaign to fight the cost of living crisis. Image: Enough is Enough

With industrial disputes showing no sign of letting up, teachers, university staff, civil servants and train drivers are all preparing to go on strike. And that’s just on February 1.

Amazon workers have also made history by staging the company’s first ever UK  strike at a warehouse in Coventry, while Royal Mail workers are balloting for strike action again, having conducted 17 days of walkouts in 2022. 

Nurses, ambulance workers and 999 call handlers are also set to hold further strikes as the NHS recruitment crisis deepens. Stories are emerging each day of the desperate state of the NHS and growing waiting times causing 300 to 500 excess deaths every week, according to the The Royal College of Emergency Medicine.

With so many workers taking a stand, talk of a general strike has gathered pace. But what is a general strike, and could we be heading for one?

What is the difference between a national strike and a general strike?

The terms national strike and general strike are sometimes used interchangeably but there is a key difference.

A general strike is usually understood to have a political purpose, calling for government action rather than focusing on individual disputes with the employers involved in the industrial action.

The UK last saw a general strike in 1926, when the TUC – the federation of trade unions – called its members to strike in defence of 1.2 million miners who were being forced to work longer hours for less money. 

Legislation brought in by Margaret Thatcher now prevents the TUC from calling a general strike, however, there is nothing to stop each union from coordinating their strike action to fall on the same day, given they have a legal mandate to strike. 

When it comes to a national strike, it might help to think of the difference between a local bus strike, in which bus drivers at one local company demand a pay rise, as opposed to a national bus strike, which could involve bus drivers across the country. 

“A general strike involves numerous unions across industries whereas a national strike could be used to describe a strike within one sector taking place nationally,” political activism researcher Taj Ali told The Big Issue. 

All that being said, the scale of unrest in both private and public sectors means the country has effectively met the definition of a “general strike” already, according to Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU). 

“It’s almost like a de facto general strike taking place by the amount of disputes,” the union leader, who is leading the dispute with Royal Mail in a bid to win better pay and the promise of no redundancies for posties, told The Telegraph.

Will February 1 be a general strike?

On February 1 almost half a million people could go on strike, with teachers, university staff, civil servants and train drivers all taking part, but this does not make it a general strike.

This is because each union’s strike action is an outcome of a strike ballot, rather than a general call to action based on a shared set of political goals. All of the unions striking have a legal mandate to do so, according to the rules laid out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

However, the date is still set to be a landmark day for strike action, described as “the most important coordinated walkout for a century” by trade unions historian Dr Edda Nicholson.

The day will also see a national protest to “protect the right to strike” called by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in response to new legislation that human rights campaigners say would “completely undermine the purpose of striking”.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is currently making its way through parliament, and would require workers in key sectors: health, transport, education, fire and rescue, and border security, to maintain a skeleton service even on strike days. 

Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, has called the bill “spiteful”, “unworkable” and “almost certainly illegal”, vowing to fight the plans through parliament and through the courts.

“We will call on the general public to show support for workers taking action to defend their pay and conditions, to defend our public services and to protect the fundamental right to strike,” he said. 

Why are some unions calling for strike action?

The inflation was 10.5 per cent, in December, having peaked at 11.1 per cent in October, the Office for National Statistics reported.

In case you can’t remember what “normal times” looked like, CPI inflation has rarely topped 3 per cent in the last decade.

With the price of every-day goods rising so rapidly, almost everyone has been feeling their budgets tighten, but it’s being felt even more acutely by people on lower incomes, with the costs of essentials soaring at higher rates.  

While average pay rose by 6.4 per cent between September and November compared with the same period in 2021, when adjusted for inflation, real pay is falling at the fastest rate in 20 years.

And in the public sector, which is facing the lion’s share of strike action, pay has risen at an even slower rate, on average at 3.3 per cent in the same time frame. 

In September the government announced its pay award to public sector workers in England and Wales, which healthcare unions say was imposed on them without negotiation, and should be increased. 

Healthcare unions say that low pay is the root cause of the recruitment crisis plaguing the NHS, which is seeing 500 nurses and midwives quitting each week, and healthcare workers leaving for better paid work in supermarkets

For the CWU, which is engaged in a dispute with Royal Mail, the dispute is about changes to the employment terms and conditions of workers just as much as it is pay. The union is also seeking a guarantee of no redundancies, as well as pushing back against changes to working hours and the proposed end to extra pay on Sundays.

When was the last general strike in the UK?

It’s been almost a century since the UK last saw a general strike. The TUC called a general strike in May 1926 in defence of 1.2 million miners. 

The UK almost saw a national strike in 2011 when millions of public sector workers went on strike in 2011 in response to changes in pensions for public sector workers. The industrial action forced two-thirds of state schools to close and thousands of hospital operations to be postponed, and rallies were held across the UK. 

Unions claimed that up to two million people refused to go to work. The strikes were largely confined to those working in the public sector, but have been described as a “public sector general strike”.

Why was there a general strike in 1926?

Owners of some of Britain’s biggest mines demanded that their employees work longer hours for less money. The miners contested this, which led to them being locked out of the mines in which they worked. After two days of stalemate, the TUC called a general strike.

The goal of the strike was to force the government to prevent mine owners from reducing miners’ wages by 13 per cent and increasing their shifts from seven to eight hours a day.

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Up to 1.7 million people working in transport, heavy industry, printing, fuel and dock workers refused to go to work on the first day of the national strike, in solidarity with the miners. 

After nine days, and as a growing number of largely middle class people volunteered to take on the roles of the strikers, the strike was called off. Six months later, most of the miners were back down the mines, working longer hours for less money, or were unemployed. 

What happened during the winter of discontent in 1976?

During the winter of 1978–79, strikes erupted across the UK as workers rejected the wage limits imposed on public and private sector industries by the Labour government.

The government justified the wage limits as necessary to curb rising inflation, however the unions saw the policy as a betrayal and “effectively abandoned their policy of voluntary wage restraint”, says historian Keith Laybourn

Ford car workers were the first to take industrial action. They put in a pay request for a rise of 25 per cent on their annual pay, but were offered just five per cent. In response, they went on strike for around nine weeks, when an agreement of a 16.5 per cent wage increase was reached. 

Strikes were also undertaken by people working on the railways, by haulage drivers, petrol tank drivers, and most notoriously, grave diggers who refused to bury the dead. 

The winter of 1976 saw abnormally low temperatures, and coupled with difficulties in getting fuel, saw many families experience severe hardship due to the cold.

The winter of discontent was made up of rolling national strikes, but isn’t considered a general strike because it lacked national coordination for political ends. 

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