Rail passengers narrowly escaped fresh disruption this weekend as unions suspended three days of strikes – but over the coming weeks and months, Rishi Sunak’s government is still facing the most significant wave of industrial action since the 1980s miners’ strike.
The biggest nursing strike in NHS history is set to take place before Christmas, with a large majority of the Royal College of Nursing’s 300,000 members expected to approve industrial action when the results of the nationwide ballot are disclosed next week.
Double-digit inflation and a decade-long pay squeeze have created the conditions for a string of bitter disputes. With the new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, pencilling in just 2% on average for pay increases in the heavily unionised public sector, the government looks set for a head on-collision with its workers.
“If there is large-scale strike action over the months ahead the government only has itself to blame,” said Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC. “Rather than getting around the table, it is picking a fight with unions and working people.”
Analysis by the Guardian of data provided by 16 major unions supports the idea that the UK may be facing the most significant wave of industrial action for decades.
Almost 1.7 million workers, most of them in the public sector, are either being balloted this month, or have already voted to support stoppages. (Once such a vote has taken place, the union has a mandate to take strike action within six months.)
If all these people voted to strike, and took two days’ action in the same month, that would lead to 3.4m working days lost, the most-disrupted month since September 1979, when Margaret Thatcher swept to power after the winter of discontent.
Long-run data gathered by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that when engineers at companies including British Leyland walked out that year, an extraordinary 11.7m days were lost in a single month.
The last time more than 2m working days were lost to industrial action in one month was the 2.42m in July 1989, when rail, tube and local government workers were all on strike. Before that, it was November 1984, during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, when the miners’ strike was raging.
At the TUC’s annual congress in Brighton last month, as Liz Truss’ catastrophic premiership came to an end, the mood was of defiance, coupled with dismay at the cost-of-living pressures facing many low-paid workers. Almost every union’s general secretary had a story to tell about a strike ballot that was looming or already ongoing. Many of these are in key public services, with nurses and school support staff, teachers, midwives and frontline civil servants all preparing to take action.
Squeezing public sector pay has repeatedly been used as a tool of austerity over the past 12 years. George Osborne, as chancellor, imposed a pay freeze from 2011 to 2013, followed by a 1% cap that lasted another four years, to 2017. Rishi Sunak slapped another freeze on public sector workers during the pandemic.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), average public sector wage is now 4% lower than it was in 2007, once inflation is taken into account.
Private sector workers have faced an extended squeeze, too, with their average earnings just 0.9% higher than 15 years ago in real terms – but union membership, which stands at less than one in four across the UK’s workforce as a whole, is strongest in the public sector and formerly public services such as rail and Royal Mail.
When the train strikes kicked off earlier this year, Boris Johnson’s government sought to portray Mick Lynch, leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), as a dangerous militant – and insinuated that Labour was in some way to blame. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, even wrote to Keir Starmer, asking him to “urge your union paymasters to talk, not walk”.
That argument may become harder to sustain if industrial action spreads more widely, taking in nurses, teachers and frontline civil servants.
Prof Michael Jacobs, of Sheffield University, an economist and former adviser to Gordon Brown, says high inflation has been the key factor behind the current surge in support for strike action.
“I think inflation is the big driver, and of course it isn’t surprising that the last time we had a period of a lot of industrial unrest, in the 1970s, was also a period of higher inflation,” he says.
“There must come a point where being offered a real wage cut, people just say, ‘I’m not accepting that, that’s ridiculous.’”
He adds that public sympathy with strikers may be aided by a broader sense that across the economy, many people have seen their working lives get harder.
“Unions have come back into fashion as workers’ conditions have got worse,” he says. “There is a general sense that a lot of pressure has come on to workers. The gig economy is one version of that, but even in jobs that are not insecure, I think people work a lot harder than they used to. They work more intensively, and they are more fed up.”
It may also be no coincidence that many of the sectors where people are now threatening to walk out are those whose staff continued to go to work through the dark days of the pandemic, including nurses, teachers and many civil servants.
When the lockdowns were over, instead of being rewarded by a grateful nation, nurses found themselves grappling with NHS backlogs, teachers with children hit hard by lost learning, and public sector staff in general with chronic underfunding.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, says he is balloting 150,000 members across public services, to improve terms and conditions for what he calls “these pandemic heroes”.
“Our members have had enough of being treated with contempt by this government,” he said. “When they vote ‘yes’ for strike action, the government will see how critical our members are in delivering key public services.”
Tony Wilson, of the Institute for Employment Studies, says the growing gap between public and private sector pay is also likely to have contributed to a sense of injustice.
“There’s a massive disparity between the public and private sectors. So public sector pay growth is barely 2% year on year; private sector pay growth is above 6%. So not only is there a living standards squeeze, because pay is not keeping up with inflation; it’s absolutely hammering public sector workers, far more than their private sector counterparts.”
Some state-funded employers are already warning that prolonged pay restraint is hampering their ability to recruit and retain the staff they need.
Matthew Taylor, of the NHS Confederation, which represents healthcare employers, says: “Two of the words I hear most often when I speak to NHS and care leaders are Amazon and Aldi: and the reason I hear those words is because their staff are leaving to work in Amazon and Aldi.
“It’s partly to do with wages, but it’s also about the pressures people are under,” he adds. “There was this sense that, when we come out of this, we’ll be able to acknowledge people and give people maybe a little bit of rest and recuperation, and it’s not been possible to do that – we’ve just had to plough on. That’s very challenging.”
He points to the help some healthcare employers are offering to support their workers through the cost-of-living crisis – including food banks.
Unison’s general secretary, Christina McAnea, whose union is currently balloting 350,000 members who work in the NHS, says: “It’s no wonder hundreds of thousands of key workers are deciding whether to strike for better pay. The government must step in to avert disruption to services by boosting their earnings.
“If not, skilled and experienced staff will continue to quit for higher wages and less stressful work in other sectors. That means already-understaffed public services will simply collapse, leaving communities without care and support.”