More strikes could potentially be on the way this fall, threatening unprecedented disruption in many industries. teachers, doctors and nurses will vote on strike action in the coming weeks. Unions could even coordinate their strikes. Unite and Unison – the country’s largest unions with a total of 2.7 million members – are calling on others to join them in synchronized action.
It is one of the most significant waves of industrial unrest the UK has seen since the “winter of discontent” in the late 1970s, when rampant inflation prompted workers to stage massive strikes. About 7.9 million working days were lost between November 1978 and February 1979, according to the Office for National Statistics.
And the average household energy bill – which is already up 54% this year – is set to rise another 80% in October to £3,549 ($4,124). According to estimates from Auxilione, a research firm, average bills in April could be £7,700 ($8,949), which equates to a monthly bill of £642 ($746).
Employees mobilize in response.
The UK has “never seen” [this] degree of disruption across all sectors,” Chiara Benassi, an associate professor of comparative industrial relations at King’s College London, told DailyExpertNews Business.
“These strikes not only affect [what] we would say [are] manual occupations or low-skilled jobs that are clearly suffering from the cost of living crisis, but also high-skilled jobs such as junior doctors, British Telecom engineers, lawyers, academics, teachers,” Benassi said.
Deepsha Agrawal, a junior doctor at Oxford University Hospital, told DailyExpertNews Business that her colleagues are pushing for a bigger pay increase than the 2% the government has agreed to in 2019.
“It’s pretty demoralizing because current inflation is expected to get very high next year,” she said.
Her union, the British Medical Association, will soon have its members vote on whether or not to strike. Agrawal believes so. Many of her colleagues feel that they cannot afford to buy houses or have children.
“[Junior doctors] are just as hardworking and as educated as other professionals. We’re having a hard time and we’re paying a price out of our pockets to do the work we’re doing,” she said.
“With what happened during Covid, we should be rewarded for what we have done, not punished for what we do every day,” Agrawal added.
Fewer union members
The current wave of industrial action cannot easily be compared to the 1970s and 1980s – if only because the government stopped tracking the number of striking workers and lost work days during the Covid-19 pandemic. It has recently started collecting data again and will provide an update this month.
Richard Hyman, a professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, told DailyExpertNews Business that this year’s strikes would pale in comparison to those of previous decades simply because union membership has fallen so dramatically.
“By about 1980, more than half of the workforce was unionized. Today it’s less than a quarter, so there’s a big decline,” said Hyman.
Strikes used to be concentrated in sectors that: “more or less disappeared” like mining and steel, Hyman added. Now union membership is more focused on the public sector, or large utility companies that used to be government owned.
“There is an increase in precarious work, so that a growing proportion of workers simply don’t have good jobs anymore and are therefore not in a position to strike,” Hyman added.
Benassi said that in the 1980s, when Britain’s manufacturing industry was shrinking rapidly, strikes were often about the survival of key sectors.
Between 1984 and 1985, thousands of miners went on strike after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government threatened to close many of the country’s coal mines.
“[Today] it’s a little different since we’re only talking about wages. Of course the disputes at the time were also about wages, but it was also about not closing the mines, for example,” she says.
Will there be more restrictions?
However, this year’s strike wave is significant for the breadth of affected industries and because of the hoops UK workers must legally break to use tools.
“Strike in the UK is very difficult. It is much more difficult than anywhere else in Western Europe, especially after the trade union law in 2016,” she said.
The legislation, which came into effect in 2017, made it much more difficult for unions to call a strike by demanding: at least 50% of the members to participate in the vote, and at least 40% of the votes cast to be in favor of strike action. The law also extended the notice period that unions must notify employers of their intention to strike from one to two weeks.
By comparison, Benassi said there is no ballot or notice period required in Germany.
Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary and favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister next week, has said she will put even stricter limits on unions’ powers to call a strike.
She has proposed raising the support threshold for strike action from 40% to 50% of the votes cast and extending the notice period to one month.
Liz Truss’ leadership campaign declined to comment when DailyExpertNews Business reached out to them.
“There is quite a hostile campaign on the part of the government to properly say that we will send temporary workers to replace the striking workers, or they must go back to work immediately, or there has already been a raise in wages,” Manuela Galetto, an associate professor of labor relations at the University of Warwick’s Business School, told DailyExpertNews Business.
Despite the hurdles, workers may currently feel more encouraged to strike given the tight labor market, she said.
Unemployment in the UK stood at 3.8% between April and June this year, data from ONS shows. That is the lowest level in more than 50 years. There was also one unemployed person for every vacancy, a record.
“It means a lot of employees are at work and they’re in a good position to ask for… [a pay] increase. They cannot be easily replaced [at a macro level]’ said Galetto.