As Britain prepares for the biggest rail strike in a generation, union leaders have warned that strike action will spread across the country if the government does not back pay rises.
The question is how widespread this action is, when it will happen, and how much impact it will have.
This week’s rail strike, led by the RMT rail union, revolves around wages and job cuts – with controversy echoing in other industries as the government tries to keep public sector wages below inflation.
RMT secretary Mick Lynch suggested other unions might join the coordinated action as his members “deeply” in a long-standing standoff with rail sector employers.
The TSSA and drivers’ union Aslef, which represents rail sector managers, are organising their own vote to take action against some train operators later in the summer.
A wider confrontation between government and public sector workers is looming. Ministers are preparing to announce below-inflation pay deals for millions of teachers, doctors, nurses and local government workers, who are already earning less in real terms than they were at the start of the austerity decade in 2010.
As inflation heads to double digits, Boris Johnson’s call — enacted last October — getting companies to raise wages to address labor market shortages seems like a long time ago.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Union Congress, said people from all walks of life supported rail workers and they were likely to take similar action if the government continued to “provocate” with unions for political purposes.
Unions representing public sector workers have been calling for pay that would not only compensate them for their rising cost of living but also reclaim land lost over the past decade.
But despite the growing rhetoric, some union officials have privately played down the “summer of discontent” claim. The RMT has long been one of the more radical unions in the UK, with more power than most because of its ability to bring the country to a standstill.
Others will want to carefully test the sentiment among their members before trying to clear legal hurdles that make it difficult to initiate strike action at the national level.
“The decision to strike is never easy, and the law makes it incredibly difficult to take action. . . but if the government imposes a sub-inflation solution on public sector workers, they may ask the unions to do so. Formal strike vote,” said a spokesman for Unison, which has about 1.3 million public service members.
It is voting on possible action for some 25,000 members working in Scottish schools.
Kevin Courtney, secretary of the National Education Union, said pay was fast becoming a bigger issue than workload among teachers.
“We’ve had messages from people who say they can’t afford gas in their cars to drive to work,” he said, adding that the crunch has exacerbated long-standing difficulties in teacher recruitment and retention.
The NEU plans to conduct a “temperature check” early in the fall semester to gauge its members’ interest in action, before a strike to take action later in September or October.
Junior doctors — who last went on strike in 2016 to protest their contract changes — are also bracing for possible action as they strike a four-year pay deal.
The British Medical Association, which has called on the government to compensate for the actual pay cuts they have suffered since 2008, said it could hold a vote on strike action in early 2023 if its demands are not met within six months.
The Royal College of Nursing, which represents nearly half a million healthcare workers, believes a 5 percent increase in wages is needed to retain staff and attract new workers to the industry. It is waiting to see advice from the NHS pay review body and the government’s response before deciding on a course of action.
Criminal barristers are stepping up legal aid operations and are planning several days of strikes for each of the next four weeks.
More broadly, while the scale of the national action remains in doubt, both unions and employers say wage negotiations are becoming more difficult, with individual workplaces in the public and private sectors more likely to strike at the local level.
Hackney was among the local authorities, and the strike broke out over a nationally proposed 1.75 per cent pay proposal by the Local Government Association, despite opposition from three unions – Unison, GMB and Unite.
O’Grady said workers’ anger is rising not only because they are being asked to take a hit while corporate profits are rising, but also because they feel the government has “abandoned working families” and is trying to gain political capital from the confrontation.
“I’ve been asked many times where we’re going to coordinate operations, and I don’t rule that out,” she said. “But the point is that workers are coordinating themselves, not out of any deliberate strategy, but because millions of workers are now facing low wages, insecurity and real cuts to the pay package.”