At this year’s Trade Union Congress (TUC), union leaders representing 5.5 million members called for “a special working group of willing unions which would organize co-ordinated action on pay and terms and conditions where possible with all TUC unions, including further demonstrations, national and regional conventions and coordinated professional efforts where possible”.
Mick Lynch, currently in charge highest profile strike among railway workersdeclared: “I will support a general strike and coordinated action.”
Asked on Sky News about a general strikeSharon Graham, general secretary of UNITE – one of the biggest unions – told Sophy Ridge: “If there’s a series of strikes happening at the same time, people can call it what they want, quite frankly.”
Heading into this winter, Britain is facing its biggest strike wave in at least a decade, involving action by more than a million public sector workers led by the major unions.
Do these powerful calls for “synchronized action” mean that Britain will soon embark on a “general strike” to match the historic general strike that took place just under a century ago in May 1926?
Only the main board of the TUC can call a general strike, and union bosses sit on the council.
Yet, for all the rhetoric so far, there is considerable practical reluctance to escalate industrial action across multiple sectors in what would become a formal confrontation with the government.
From nurses to teachers: The year of strikes
Either way, 2022 will go down as a year of strikes.
About 560,000 working days were lost in August and September – almost double the recent full-year total – and industrial action is on the rise.
To pursue their pay demands, 40,000 members of the RMT union have announced several one-day strikes over the Christmas period on 13, 14, 16 and 17 December and 3, 4, 6 and 7 January 2023. There will also be overtime bans in the weeks between. Train drivers in ASLEF are planning strikes on other days.
For the first time ever and after a yes vote in a poll, The Royal College of Nursing announces strike days for more than 300,000 nurses. And 400,000 NHS workers in UNISON are currently voting on strike action, with the result expected in January.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of UNISON, said recently: “Coordinated action unites us and we have one single aim: end this pay crisis in this country.”
• The Royal College of Midwives also consults its members. So are junior doctors in the British Medical Association (BMA)
• 70,000 in the University and University Lecturers’ Union (ULU) walked out this week
• 115,000 postal workers in the communications workers’ union continue to strike from November to December
• 400,000 teachers and support staff in the NASUWT – National Education Union (NEU) are holding a strike ballot and the result is expected in the new year. The separate Scottish Teachers’ Union is already taking action
• 100,000 civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have voted in favor of industrial action
• There are also disputes involving the airline’s GMB ground staff, some dock workers, London bus drivers, BT and Outreach staff among others
Keep track of all this winter’s strikes
Different strikes, same cause
These disputes all have the same root cause: UK inflation is now running at 11%.
Unions want wage rates above inflation to combat the cost of living crisis. They already point out that their members’ earnings have fallen in real terms and are now worth what they were in 2008.
Fourteen years is the longest period of wage stagnation in modern times. If they were to catch up to real ratios, wage allocations would have to be 15% or more.
Private sector workers currently settle for below-inflation rises of around 6% on average, but many public sector employers have yet to match that with their offers.
Secondary grievances from the unions include protests against what they see as the privatization of public services and proposed changes to working methods which they believe will have a negative impact on the conditions of those involved.
Employers often want to link strict requirements about changed working methods to potential salary awards.
What history tells us about general strikes
Demands for more pay to avoid falling behind and against worse working conditions were also central grievances in the general strike in 1926, although in a much sharper form.
Then 1.2 million miners in the privately owned (but strategically vital and government-controlled) coal industry were locked out after opposing pay cuts and worse contracts. In the end, negotiations between the unions, employers and external advisers broke down.
Railway, transport, printing, dock and iron and steel workers joined the general strike in support of the miners’ demand for “not a penny in wages, not a minute in the day”.
At its peak, about 1.75 million workers went on strike.
The Conservative government led by Stanley Baldwin was well prepared for the strike. Special constables to ensure the “maintenance of supplies” had been recruited, although then Chancellor Winston Churchill’s proposal to deploy armed troops was rejected.
Middle-class volunteers acted as strikebreakers, ostensibly to preserve essential services.
After nine days, the TUC General Council called off the general strike. The miners lost and had to accept longer working hours and lower wages.
The coal industry continued its decline, which would run all the way through full nationalization to the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership.
Historians say the general strike must be seen in the context of genuine fears of revolution in the wake of the Communist takeover of Russia a few years earlier. The Labor Party was only just establishing itself as a government party and then as now did not fully support the strikes.
Sunak’s less confrontational approach
This has not stopped Rishi Sunak from repeatedly demanding that Sir Keir Starmer ask Labour’s “union wage leaders” to call off the strikes.
In practice, Sunak’s government appears to be taking a less confrontational approach than his immediate predecessors.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper readily agreed to meet with the RMT. Mick Lynch described their meeting as “positive”, although he said he was no closer to calling off the Christmas strikes.
Society is much less polarized about the strikes now than it was in 1926. The Conservative government may have changed the law to allow rail companies to bring in temporary workers to keep services running, but they have so far refused to do so, even though e.g. substitutes were readily available.
There was no NHS in 1926. The centrality of public health workers in the current disputes has increased public sympathy. After a rolling dispute with health workers back in 1982, Mrs Thatcher won re-election and then gave nurses an annual pay award of up to 14%.
In opinion polls, around 60% support the current strikes, while between 24% and 33% oppose them. But less than half agree that the wage awards should be as large as the unions ask for.
The RMT risks losing public sympathy with its strikes disrupting Christmas celebrations, including “Black Eye Friday”, the biggest day for office and work parties.
After two Christmases wiped out by COVID, the hospitality industry in London alone expects the disruption to cost it around £300m, with an estimated national bill of £1.2bn. Media savvy Mick Lynch has been forced to deny he is a “Grinch” on national television.
More from Adam Boulton:
Learn how to benefit from past and current strikes
The next two years will reveal whether Sunak is a safe pair of hands
American midterms an unreliable way to predict the next president
In these opportune times, Britain is by no means the only country affected by waves of industrial protest. South Korea, Bolivia, Portugal, Greece, Italy and France have all recently been hit by national waves of cost-of-living strikes.
The US Congress passed a law to block a planned railroad strike.
Yet the membership of organized trade unions is declining. The unions lost the general strike in 1926. Since then, most governments have taken steps to weaken the effectiveness of mass action.
In this country, most citizens and workers are caught in the middle and suffer the consequences without being directly involved.
A class confrontation or coordinated “rebellion” that Mick Lynch hoped for is unlikely.
Instead, continued widespread and sporadic disruption is almost a certainty in the coming months. Individual disputes will ultimately be settled above what employers and the government say they can afford, but below what the strikers are asking for.