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Why the British are suddenly so strike-happy

March 15, 2023

Double-digit inflation has spurred a wave of strikes across the UK not seen for 40 years. While French and German workers want to maintain standards, British workers are trying to get back what they've lost.

Junior Doctors protest during their strike outside a hospital in London, Britain on March 13, 2023
Junior doctors in the UK have begun a three-day strike over pay and working conditionsImage: Kevin Coombs/REUTERS

Around 40,000 junior doctors in the United Kingdom began a three-day walkout on Monday that is expected to be even more disruptive to the country's health care system than recent industrial action by nurses and ambulance staff

A wave of strikes has disrupted life in Britain as workers react to decades-high inflation that reached 11.1% in October 2022.

In recent months, public transport staff, teachers, postal workers and border staff have all walked off the job to demand higher pay and better working conditions.

Until a short while ago, many Britons would sneer at French or German workers, believing that their continental counterparts were "always on strike," and that such walkouts were bad for business. 

But as the UK emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of Brexit began to kick in, the country's economic malaise was plain to see.

Britain's chances hamstrung by neglect

Years of austerity following the 2008 financial crisis weakened public services to the point that they are now often struggling to provide basic levels of support. The National Health Service (NHS) is buckling under the strain of an aging and increasingly unhealthy population, as well as a huge backlog of treatments that were delayed during the pandemic.

Striking workers complain of an obsession by successive Conservative governments with efficiencies that they say has led to years of underinvestment and left them with unreasonable workloads and falling real incomes. Worst still, the full economic effects of Brexit have yet to be felt.

"Over the last 12 years, Britain has experienced the longest phase of real wage stagnation since the early 19th century," Scott Lavery, a lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield, told DW. "Since the financial crisis, we've seen sustained real wage decline."

Real incomes — after accounting for inflation — have fallen 5.1% since December 2007, according to UK government figures. This coupled with the inflation crisis, which Lavery said was "eroding living standards dramatically," has left British workers struggling to stay afloat.

A sign informs customers of the closure of a shop near Leicester Square in London, England, on March 8, 2021
The cost of living crisis has also hit UK small businesses hardImage: David Cliff/NurPhoto/picture alliance

British struggle to play catch-up

French workers have also hit the streets recently over soaring inflation. But their main priority is to oppose planned reforms to the country's generous pension system that allows retirement at 62. German unions, meanwhile, have succeeded in negotiating several inflation-busting pay deals, including one with Deutsche Post last weekend that favors the lower paid and even includes trainees.

"In France, there is a sense of defending an existing standard of living, while in the UK, people feel that whatever used to exist has gone," Sam Moorecroft, vice president of the Trades Union Council in the city of Sheffield, told DW.

Moorecroft believes the seeds of today's misery were sown in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher took office as prime minister and proceeded to crush the trade union movement. She blamed generous pro-union laws introduced by the then-socialist Labour Party for allowing widespread strike action to bring the country to its knees.

"When Thatcher defeated the miners in the 1980s, many believed that the trade union movement had been completely defeated. But now, there is a move to return to the same level of union participation as the past," Moorecroft added.

That ambition is yet to be seen in the statistics. Union membership peaked in 1979 and by 2021 had more than halved to 23.1% of the workforce or 6.44 million people. Union members tend to be over 35 and almost half have been working for the same company for a decade or more, but that is changing.

Can young people restore the balance?

Unions are reaching out to younger workers, who are more likely to be on the minimum wage, and a third of whom are on zero-hours contracts. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) calculated recently that nearly 90% of those under 30 on low to median incomes in Britain work in the private sector, which is mostly non-unionized.

The Low Pay Commission, which advises the UK government, found last month that many UK employers were failing to incorporate annual hikes to the national minimum wage — a phenomenon known as wage theft. Before the pandemic, around 22% of minimum wage earners were underpaid, but by April 2022, that figure had grown to almost a third.

Moorecroft noted how non-unionized workplaces are increasingly mobilizing for better pay and conditions, citing a recent strike at Amazon's largest UK fulfillment center, in Coventry. Around 300 workers at the 1,400-strong warehouse walked out several times over the past two months over low wages and grueling round-the-clock shift patterns.

While the US tech firm's French and German workers have previously staged several strikes, particularly around the Black Friday sales, Amazon has so far refused to recognize Britain's GMB union, which fights for the rights of the firm's employees in the UK. 

NHS nurses hold placards during a strike outside a hospital in London, Britain December 20, 2022
In December, the Royal College of Nursing called its members on strike for the first time everImage: Maja Smiejkowska/REUTERS

Strikes garner more public backing

Public support for walkouts in the UK has always been mixed as memories of the Winter of Discontent linger. During the coldest months of 1978-9, the country was brought to a standstill by large-scale private and public sector strikes that caused food shortages, weeks of uncollected garbage and, in one city, the dead to lie unburied.

This time, however, with public services already defective, the cost of living crisis hitting everyone's pockets and living standards lower than a decade ago, the public's backing for strikes is noticeably higher.

A poll by Sky News in January found that 63% of Britons strongly support or somewhat support walkouts by health care workers, with 49% backing wider public sector action.

"There is certainly a sense that those core public sector workers that kept the economy running during the pandemic have strong public support ... particularly nurses, despite their strikes having potentially life-or-death consequences," Lavery said.

Sunak's government under pressure

Recent signs of progress toward ending the wage disputes are encouraging, despite the government having argued that inflation-busting pay increases would drive prices higher. Nurses, midwives and ambulance staff last week called off their planned strikes as negotiations looked positive.

Britain is, however, unlikely to pivot to a more European labor market structure. After all, the country's decision to leave the EU was sometimes referred to as an opportunity to create a low-tax Singapore-on-Thames. The country's heavy indebtedness last year forced a 70-year-high tax burden on workers, which put that possibility on hold for now. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proposed new legislation in January that would enforce "minimum service levels" in key areas of the public sector, including education and health care, which would hamper strikes.

"[This] would effectively debar some workers from taking legal industrial action," Lavery told DW. "The UK already has some of the most restrictive anti-union legislation in the Western world and Sunak is trying to tighten up further ... so he's far from being a peacemaker."

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey