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NIAS Europe Studies
The UK: Conservative party put to test as worker strikes continue

  Padmashree Anandhan

On 13 December, 40,000 workers of the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT) along with 14 train operating companies, staged a 48-hour walkout. The strikes were held in England, Scotland, and Wales demanding an increase in pay on par with the rising cost of living and better working conditions. The Network Rail which owns 50 per cent of the UK’s railway infrastructure, announced the shutdown of railway services during the strike days. Along with the rail workers, teachers, postal workers, border force officers, ambulance staff from the Unison, GMB unions, nurses, university staff, baggage handlers, driving examiners, and bus drivers from different labour unions announced to hold strikes through December and January. On 13 December, in a firm response to these strikes, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the government will not be able to shift its position on a pay rise. He said: “While the government will do all we can to minimize disruption, the only way we can stop it completely is by unions going back around the table and calling off these strikes.” According to Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt: “Any action that risks embedding high prices into our economy will only prolong the pain for everyone, and stunt any prospect of long-term economic growth.”

Three issues
First, the nature of the strikes. This can be viewed at three levels. At the geographic and industry level, the strikes which began in June 2022 have been held across England, Wales, London, and Scotland by the RMT workers. This has now spilt over to workers from other critical sectors such as health (non-life-threatening division), education, and airport. At the workers’ level, although the striking group was predominantly blue-collar, to begin with, it has now come to include white-collar workers such as civil servants, junior doctors, teachers, university staff, and nurses. In terms of the total working days lost as per the data from the Office for National Statistics, the private sector has been impacted the most with a loss of 369 days, the highest since November 1996. At the demand level, it has increased beyond the initial call for a pay rise to better working conditions, job security, and more investments in infrastructure.

Second, reasons behind the strike. One, the clash between the demand for a pay increase and the government’s hold on public spending and its plan to increase taxes is seen as the major trigger behind the strikes. Two, the participation of the white-collar employees from administration, health care, schools, and universities was due to budget cuts resulting in a lack of beds, home health aides, shortage in staff to attend backlogs and prevent delays in healthcare, schools, and universities. Although the current allocated budget and existing reserve in 2022 will keep the educational institution afloat, sustaining the same for the next year remains to be seen.

Third, government response. The UK government has not been reluctant, however, prioritising the economic pressure and addressing the demands for a pay rise has gone slow. Thus far, the government’s response to the strikes in December has not been in the favour of the labour unions from railways, baggage handlers, universities, public and commercial services, and bus drivers. The governments in England and Wales have given an average rise of 4.75 per cent to NHS (National Health Service) staff, up to 9 per cent to the royal mail workers, and 6.85 per cent to the lowest-paid category of teachers. Since the offered pay rise does not match the inflation, it has been rejected by the workers, furthering the chaos inside the country. Further, the government has followed stricter rules such as a strike can be organised only if a majority in the union agree through an organized vote. The restrictions also apply to certain professionals such as nurses (who will not risk the immediate health of patients), ambulance workers, and firefighters, while police officers are not allowed to strike. The government is expected to propose tougher rules in the coming weeks.

A wait and watch for the UK government
First, a troubled public service atmosphere. UK’s growing strikes amongst the railway, airport baggage, university, and to some extent the NHS staff can disrupt key services and lead to public resentment. Increasing energy prices, cost of living, and cutting down on public service will reduce the public’s support for the conservative party.

Second, a wait-and-watch game for Sunak’s administration. Worker strikes are nothing new in the UK since the 17th-century industrial action is well known amongst the worker groups, but the government’s response to such strikes has varied over time. Taking the 1978 “Winter of Discontent” period as an example, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party failed to address the pay rise demand of the workers which triggered more strikes and no concrete decision. This eventually led to the Margaret Thatcher administration (Conservative) to introduce rules to control the power of trade unions in the 1980s which resulted in silencing the miner strikes who returned to work without any negotiation. Similarly, Sunak’s administration can also be expected to wait and watch the strikes weaken, but it is going to be a long wait.

About the Author
Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She is currently working on the essay on NATO expansion in the Nordic.

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