Another day, another round of strikes in Britain.
With the approach of the Christmas holidays, the railway workers paralyzed the transport network. Border Force personnel prepare to go out. Postal workers, bus drivers and civil servants are on strike or are threatening to strike.
This week, nurses staged their biggest walkout in decades. And on Wednesday, paramedics are on strike in many parts of England, in a particularly bitter dispute that will bring further turmoil to an already ravaged public health system.
The public has been urged to call for ambulances only when absolutely necessary. “Don’t get so drunk that you end up with an unnecessary visit to A&E,” NHS England medical director Stephen Powis told the BBC.
But Wednesday’s strike is increasing pressure on the government, accused of ignoring workers’ calls. Health Secretary Steve Barclay told the Daily Telegraph that paramedics had “made a conscious choice to harm patients”, comments which have drawn anger from workers and unions.
A series of individual disputes in various sectors have culminated in a wider feeling that something has gone very wrong in Britain, with workers saying their pay, conditions and ability to provide essential services have been compromised by years cuts and underinvestment.
How did things come to such a nadir?
Thursday’s strike by paramedics, who are demanding a salary increase in line with inflation, comes after the departure of thousands of nurses on December 15 and 20.
It’s not just health and emergency services that are affected; virtually every form of travel has been affected in some way by the strike, or is expected to be in the coming weeks – along with education, the criminal justice system, the postal service and a host of other areas .
- The railway strikes have been raging for several months and often make the headlines in the UK. The RMT union, which mainly represents guards, ticket examiners and maintenance staff, has called for a series of walkouts, including over the Christmas period. ASLEF, which represents train drivers, has also planned action in January. Railway workers want better pay and more job security.
- Postal workers at Royal Mail, which is now a private company, are taking action in the run-up to Christmas, affecting deliveries during the busy festive period.
- Border force workers from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are on strike for eight days during the holiday period. The strikes will impact London Heathrow Airport, as well as hubs at London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow. The porters also went out on certain dates.
- London bus drivers have planned a series of strikes throughout December.
- Several teachers’ unions are consulting their members about the strike, after wage offers were rejected. A national teachers’ strike is already planned for next month in Scotland.
- Criminal lawyers went on strike earlier in the winter, before voting to accept a pay offer and end the action.
Each squad has industry-specific complaints that brought them to the picket line. But the wave of strikes must also be seen in light of the UK’s long-standing economic and societal stagnation, which has left workers desperate for a better deal.
A cost of living crisis and runaway inflation have made matters worse for Britons this year. When adjusted for inflation, wages in the UK have fallen at one of the steepest rates since records began in 2001, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
And British public sector workers in particular bear the brunt of it; average wage growth in the private sector was 6.9% in mid-2022, compared to 2.7% for the public sector – the ONS said this gap is “among the biggest differences between rates private sector and public sector growth that we have seen.
Yet for many striking workers, the anger goes back further than the current economic crises.
Since former Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity program slashed public service budgets, workers have complained about the decline of many UK local agencies and institutional safety nets.
Funding for local councils and schools collapsed during the 2010s, a decade of decline that critics say has held Britain back, leaving a gaping wound in services on which parents, children and citizens matter every day.
The aftershocks of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have further tightened the purse strings and complicated a cautious effort to break out of the tight approach that defined the 2010s.
More recently, instability at the heart of government – Britain is in its fifth prime minister in six years – and a disastrous financial package unveiled by chaotic ex-PM Liz Truss have dashed the hopes of many Britons that the public sector will get a boost in the near future.
Strikes within the National Health Service – a pillar of the UK national system identity and one of the most popular government programs in the world – are rare.
Until this month, the UK’s largest nurses’ union had never called a walkout in its 106-year history. Wednesday’s ambulance strike is the first of its kind since 1990.
There are concerns about the level of service that will continue during the strike. Members of the armed forces are being deployed in a bid to mitigate the impact, and Health Minister Will Quince suggested on BBC Radio that people should avoid contact sports or any other ‘risky activity’ while the ambulance services are interrupted, comments which have been roundly criticized as flippant. .
But NHS workers have been pushed to the brink in recent years, with a staffing crisis, low pay and skyrocketing waiting lists, leaving hospitals and wards overcrowded and staff exhausted.
Britons now have to wait an average of an hour for an ambulance if they have reported a suspected heart attack, stroke or other similar condition, despite a national target of 18 minutes. The wait for a “category 1” call, which concerns immediate threats to life, can be up to 10 minutes, despite a target of seven minutes.
Conditions don’t always improve when a patient arrives at the hospital, where wait times reach record highs. Every day, across the country, ambulances can be seen lined up outside emergency departments, waiting to discharge their patients.
In the West Midlands region of England, one person died after an ambulance was delayed throughout 2020. In the first nine months of 2022, that figure had risen to 37, according to the BBC’s Newsnight programme, which obtained the figures through a Freedom of Information request.
“The reality is that, every day, nurses across the UK are going to understaffed hospitals,” Andrea Mackay, who worked as a nurse for seven years at a South West hospital, told CNN. of England, on the reasons for his strike last week.
“During one of my worst shifts, I was the only nurse for 28 sick children,” added Jessie Collins, a pediatric nurse. “It’s not safe and we can’t provide the care these children sometimes need.”
This wave of strikes is the biggest to hit Britain for a decade, and the sheer number of services affected has drawn comparisons with the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978-79.
This period followed bitter wage disputes between the government and the public and private sectors; after her election victory in 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ran a largely successful campaign battle with many British unions, greatly diminishing their power.
In reality, the strikes of 2022 caused a fraction of the impact that these had.
A total of 417,000 working days were lost due to strikes in October, the most recent month for which figures are available, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), a far cry from the several million days lost in the late 1970s.
But October’s figure is the highest figure for any month since 2011, and virtually all pay disputes appear far from resolved, fueling fears that next year will bring massive disruption.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government says it cannot afford the wage demands of public sector unions. In the case of railway strikes, he said it is up to private railways to resolve disputes – despite the government controlling the purse strings, having bailed out the network during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the ongoing disruption is a major headache for Sunak, who took over from Truss with the promise of a sensible, restrained approach to Britain’s stuttering economy.
Opinion polls show the government bears much of the blame for the wave of social unrest and the public is generally supportive of the striking workers.
Ministers have repeatedly taken a hard line, refusing to bow to the demands of just one union – exposing themselves to criticism that it is not trying hard enough end conflicts.
Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer attacked Sunak during the nurses’ strike in Parliament last week, telling him that “the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief” if he ended the strike by reaching an agreement with the MRC.
The industrial action was a “badge of shame on this government”, Starmer said.
His party, which has historic ties to several unions, is toeing a delicate line on strikes; Starmer declined to explicitly back the unions’ demands, but pointed to their walkouts as proof the Tories had stalled the economy.
These arguments will be tested even more over the Christmas and New Year period, and public opinion will be essential in strengthening the government’s hand or forcing them to the negotiating table.