Strikes sweep Britain as soaring inflation ravages living standards

CNN Business

The workers of the UK are fed up with the declining standard of living.

Railway workersjournalists, lawyers and postal workers have gone on strike in recent weeks to demand higher wages as inflation hits its highest level in decades.

At least 155,000 workers are currently on strike, including staff from the country’s postal service, as well as engineers and call center workers from telecommunications provider BT

. On Wednesday, two railway unions announced further strike action by 14,000 of their members later this month.

More strikes could take place this fall, threatening unprecedented disruption across a range of industries. Teachers, doctors and nurses are due to vote on the strike in the coming weeks. The unions could even coordinate their walkouts. Unite and Unison – the nation’s largest unions with 2.7 million total members – are calling on others to join them in synchronized action.

It is one of the biggest waves of industrial unrest the UK has seen since the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s, when runaway inflation pushed workers to organize massive walkouts. About 7.9 million working days were lost between November 1978 and February 1979, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Soaring prices and years of stagnant wages are the backdrop to this year’s disputes. Consumer price inflation hit a 40-year high of 10.1% in July. Citigroup forecasters said last week that inflation could exceed 18% early next year, and Goldman Sachs thinks it could even hit 22% if gas prices don’t come down soon.

Workers are already feeling the pressure. Average real wages, which explain inflation, fell by 3% between April and June, compared to the same period last year. It was the biggest success of purchasing power in over 20 years. Real wages barely increased in the decade to 2020.

And average household energy bills – which have already risen by 54% this year – are expected to rise another 80% to £3,549 ($4,124) in October. According to estimates from Auxilione, a research firm, average bills could reach £7,700 ($8,949) next April, which equates to a monthly bill of £642 ($746).

Workers are mobilizing in response.

The UK has “never seen [this] level of disruption across all sectors,” Chiara Benassi, associate professor of comparative labor relations at King’s College London, told CNN Business.

In recent months, the cost of living crisis acted as a “trigger” for widespread grievances that built up over a long period, she said.

“These strikes not only affect [what] we would say [are] manual professions or low-skilled jobs that would more obviously be struggling with the cost of living crisis, but also high-skilled jobs like young doctors, British Telecom engineers, lawyers, academics, teachers,” Benassi said.

BT workers on strike over their wages on August 30 in London, England.

Deepsha Agrawal, a junior doctor at Oxford University Hospital, told CNN Business her colleagues were pushing for a pay rise above the 2% agreed by the government in 2019.

“It’s quite demoralizing because the current inflation rate is expected to rise very high next year,” she said.

His union, the British Medical Association, will soon vote its members on whether to strike. Agrawal thinks they will. Many of his colleagues feel they cannot afford to buy houses or have children.

“[Junior doctors] are as hardworking and as educated as other professionals. We struggle and we pay a price out of pocket to do the work we do,” she said.

“With what happened during Covid, we should be rewarded for what we did, not punished for what we do every day,” Agrawal added.

The current wave of industrial action cannot easily be compared to the 1970s and 1980s – if only because the government has stopped tracking the number of workers on strike and days lost from work during the Covid-pandemic. 19. It recently started collecting data again and will provide an update this month.

Richard Hyman, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, told CNN Business that this year’s strikes will pale in comparison to those of previous decades simply because union membership has fallen so dramatically.

“Around about 1980, more than half of the workforce was unionized. Today it’s less than a quarter, so there’s been a big drop,” Hyman said.

The strikes were concentrated in sectors that have “more or less disappeared” such as coal mining and steel, Hyman added. Now union membership is more oriented towards the public sector or large utility companies that were previously government owned.

“There has been an increase in precarious work, so an increasing proportion of workers simply no longer have suitable jobs and are therefore unable 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 coal miners went on strike after the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher threatened to shut down many of the country’s coal mines.

“[Today] it’s a little different, because we’re only talking about remuneration. Of course, the disputes at the time were also about wages, but it was also about, for example, not closing the mines,” she said.

This year’s wave of strikes is significant, however, for the breadth of industries affected and because of the hurdles UK workers must legally jump through to give up their tools.

“Strike in the UK is very difficult. It is much more difficult than anywhere in Western Europe, especially after the trade union bill 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 vote, and at least 40% of the votes cast to be in favor of the strike. The law also increased the notice period that unions must give employers of their intention to strike from one week to two.

By comparison, Benassi said neither a ballot nor a notice period is required in Germany.

Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary and favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister next week, said she would impose even stricter limits on the power of unions to call strikes.

Rubbish overflows from bins during a workers' strike in Edinburgh, Scotland on August 27.

She proposed raising the strike support threshold from 40% to 50% of the votes cast and extending the notice period to one month.

“I’m going to take a tough line on labor action,” Truss said. Sky News in July.

Liz Truss’ leadership campaign declined to comment when contacted by CNN Business.

“There is a rather contradictory campaign on the government side to say well we will send temporary workers to replace the strikers, or that they return to work immediately, or that there has already been a salary increase”, Manuela Galetto, associate professor of labor relations at the University of Warwick Business School, told CNN Business.

Despite the obstacles, workers may feel more emboldened to strike right now, given the tight labor market, she said.

Unemployment in the UK was 3.8% between April and June this year, according to ONS data. This is its lowest level in more than 50 years. There was also one unemployed person for every vacant post, a record.

“It means that many workers are at work and they are in a good position to ask [a pay] to augment. They cannot be easily replaced [at a macro level]“, said Galetto.

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