Current Strikes in UK ‘Last Resort’ After Over Decade of No Pay Rises


Kirill Krasilnikov – The current worker strikes across the United Kingdom differ from similar events in the 1970s in that trade union power has been significantly curtailed and current actions are less about aggressive demands for improved standards of living and more of a last-ditch effort after over a decade of low or no pay hikes, experts told Sputnik.

The UK has seen a series of strikes by civil servants over the past months as people express their dissatisfaction with the worsening economic situation caused by soaring inflation. Employees of railroad companies, post offices, airports, and lawyers, among others, are taking part in the strikes. The country’s largest nursing union, the Royal College of Nursing, launched its first-ever strike in its 106-year history.

Annual inflation in the UK reached 11.1% in October before slowing down to 10.7% in November. According to the Bank of England, the UK economy has entered a recession expected to last until the second half of 2024.

In November, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt unveiled a medium-term financial plan to stabilize the economic situation in the country by introducing tax raises and spending cuts. Now, the government has to combat inflation while also facing a wave of discontent as people see their real wages going down.


Many have already compared the current situation with that of the 1970s when the 1973 oil crisis pushed the UK into a period of long-term economic malaise characterized by double-digit inflation, a currency crisis and low growth. The situation was further complicated by trade unions demanding higher wages so that their members could keep up with rising prices. This resulted in the so-called Winter of Discontent between November 1978 and February 1979, when a series of strikes against the Labour government’s attempt to introduce pay limits coincided with the coldest winter in 16 years. The ensuing negative sentiment toward the strikers helped to propel Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher to 10 Downing Street from where she managed to stare down the unions, crippling them for decades to come.

“In the 1970s trade unions were often aggressive, demanding improved living standards for their members. The aim of the current actions is much more defensive. Unions can argue that public sector incomes have been falling in real terms for more than a decade, and pay rises which do not address today’s inflationary pressures are unacceptable,” Mark Garnett, a senior lecturer at the department of politics, philosophy and religion at Lancaster University, said, adding that “since the 1970s their activities have been subjected to significant legal restrictions.”

The unions are also finding themselves having much-reduced power as they do not command the same numbers as in the heyday of the 1970s, when the union membership peaked at 13.2 million.

“The structural power of trade unions measured by density (the proportion of workers who are union members) has declined markedly since 1979, especially in the private sector,” Patrick Diamond, professor of public policy at Queen Mary University of London, noted.

When asked about similarities between the past and present, Peter Dorey, professor of British politics at Cardiff University, pointed out that both periods are characterized by rising inflation reducing living standards and purchasing power as well as many of the strikers being public sector workers whose salaries are decided by the government.

“There are differences today, though. Whereas the 1970s strikes followed several years of prosperity and rising living standards, today’s strikes follow more than a decade of austerity, and for millions of workers, low or no pay increases for over a decade,” Dorey explained.

Along with 10%-inflation as well as skyrocketing gas and electricity prices, higher mortgages, this has led to “unprecedented anger/desperation among many workers who believe that the government is out-of-touch or simply does not care,” according to the expert.


The UK public is currently divided on the matter, with 36% opposing the strikes, 30% supporting and 27% being neutral, according to an Ipsos poll published earlier this week. At the same time, the support varies across professions, with NHS workers receiving the most public support, 52%, while criminal lawyers and civil servants are the least supported.

“While most members of the public feel sympathy with strikers (particularly nurses), this has already been fading and is likely to fall further in response to the inevitable disruption,” Garnett suggested

In the same vein, Dorey warned that the longer the strikes last and the more inconvenience is caused to people, the more likely the general public is to sour on the strikers and trade unions, especially as the country’s right-wing newspapers will be pushing in that direction.

“Britain’s newspapers always do this during strikes – ‘find’ people whose lives have been disrupted by a strike – to manipulate public opinion and turn it against the strikes and trade unions,” the expert stated.


So far the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has shown an unwillingness to meet the union’s demands, essentially indicating that it is going to wait until the strikers run out of steam.

Diamond suggested that this was exactly what the government was going to do, “tough out the current wave of strikes,” due to the declined structural power of unions.

Meanwhile, Garnett thinks that despite a tough stance on unions being popular with his fellow Tories, he will have to compromise eventually, as “unlike in the 1970s most of today’s strikers are taking action only as a last resort.”

“Whether or not they lose public support, they are most unlikely to return to normal working unless they receive settlements which truly reflect the cost of living crisis. This means that Sunak will be forced to compromise at some point, and promote deals which still fall below the level of inflation but are considerably more generous,” Garnett continued, adding that “if he continues to appear inflexible for too long, he might find himself losing the battle for public support and he cannot afford to do this with his party already well behind in the opinion polls.”

Dorey, for his part, described the government’s approach as “confusing and/or inconsistent,” saying that some ministers seem to be meeting or willing to meet union leaders despite the official insistence that pay claims are unaffordable, refusal to negotiate and threats of new laws against unions. He cited reports about alleged “secret ‘crisis talks’ between the government, rail employers and the leaders of the RMT to seek a resolution before the New Year” as well as reports that “senior Conservatives are urging Rishi Sunak to intervene to improve the pay offer to nurses.”

At the same time, the expert saw an opportunity in the current strikes to bring together workers from both public and private sectors over shared interests and a common foe.

“What these [strikes] could do is encourage a realisation among diverse groups of workers in very different jobs that they actually have similar economic interests – and a common political ‘enemy’! Such potential unity would be unprecedented – and dangerous for a government whose natural response is to play divide-and-rule by turning different groups of workers against each other to weaken or prevent solidarity,” Dorey concluded.

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