Workers’ anger at cost of living as strong as time of poll tax riots, union boss says

Sharon Graham, head of Unite, on picket line with Felixstowe dock strikers, says people could rise up again as they did in the 1990s

British workers are at breaking point, with anger over the cost of living crisis reaching a level not seen since the poll tax riots of the 1990s, the head of one of the UK’s most powerful trade unions has said.

Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, said frustration at pay failing to keep pace with soaring inflation was spilling over into a wave of strike action that would extend from a summer of discontent into the winter.

Speaking from the picket line outside the port of Felixstowe, where thousands of dock workers are striking over pay this week, she compared the situation to widespread national anger over Margaret Thatcher’s controversial community charge, better known as the poll tax, more than three decades ago.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in towns and cities around Britain in March 1990, in a rebellion that culminated in clashes with mounted police in Trafalgar Square, central London. Regarded as key in bringing about the end of Thatcher’s premiership, the poll tax was introduced first in Scotland, then England and Wales before being dropped by her successor, John Major.

“I actually think there is a moment where people could rise to doing exactly the same thing again,” Graham told the Guardian.

She said further strikes at Britain’s biggest container terminal could be expected beyond this week and could continue until Christmas – unless the port’s Hong Kong-based owners improved their pay offer to workers.

Raising the prospect of fresh supply chain disruption before the festive period, she said workers were rock-solid in their determination to win a bigger pay rise from the port and would not hesitate to use fresh industrial action if required. “We are going to be looking at escalating that action,” she said.

Dismissing speculation that union leaders are coordinating industrial action to exert maximum pressure on employers and the government, Graham said a groundswell of unhappiness over living standards was sweeping the country.

“It’s the other way around. There is a coordination of workers, who are saying: ‘I’m not taking this any more’.

“That is happening organically, which is what happened with the poll tax. Yes, there are leaders of things. But collectives make change, not individuals.”

Asked whether she felt the country was facing a moment with clear parallels to unrest over the poll tax, she added: “I think we could be, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Workers at Felixstowe are involved in an eight-day strike. Unite has dismissed a pay offer of 7% from the port operator, CK Hutchison, for being “significantly below” the rate of inflation.

With the soaring cost of essentials and energy bills, inflation in the UK has risen above 10% for the first time since the 1980s. The Bank of England has forecast it will peak above 13%, while forecasters at US bank Citi expect it to hit 18% early next year.

Graham said Unite planned to escalate its dispute at Felixstowe by approaching the port operator’s top investors and clients to expose how it was a “greedy company”, aiming to boost the union’s leverage on top of renewed strike action.

CK Hutchison, which is ultimately controlled by the Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka-shing, made profits of £79m last year, Unite said.

“I want to be able to show [investors] forensic accounts and say this dispute isn’t because of us. It’s because the company is too greedy. It’s leverage. It’s about widening the strike beyond just the picket line,” she said.

“Their profits are up 28% on last year. So you think, ‘hang on a second, you are in massive profit? How can you justify asking these workers to take a pay cut?’”

Responding to Graham’s visit to the picket line, a spokesperson for the Port of Felixstowe, said: “A lot of our employees feel let down by Unite. Many want to work and are angry that they have not been allowed to vote on the latest company offer.

“The port has offered a deal worth 8.1% to 9.6% this year. The strike imposed on them by Unite is an effective pay cut of 2.2%. Many employees have told us they want to come to work but feel too uncomfortable to do so.”


Richard Partington in Felixstowe

The GuardianTramp

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