Britain faces a violent month of strikes and disruption before Christmas, with nurses likely to join postal workers, education and rail staff in a wave of strikes that will peak in the busiest weeks for office parties and festive shopping.
The Royal College of Lactating (RCN) is expected to announce unprecedented industrial action following the passing of a deadline given to ministers following a strike vote over a fortnight ago.
It is likely to be the first in a series of strikes over the winter and into the spring NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance staff.
The expected move came as postal workers, university staff and Scottish school teachers went on strike on Thursday, while rail union confirmed the plans for eight days of national strikes despite a “positive” meeting with ministers.
Although unions have said there are no plans for general strikes, several have talked about coordinating industrial action to maximize disruption and political impact. The RMT leader, Mick Lynch, has called for “a wave of action” on behalf of low-paid workers, a phrase echoed by TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, although she said synchronization was not always necessarily the most effective strategy.
After a meeting with Transport Secretary Mark Harper on Thursday, Lynch said the minister had “started a dialogue” and “got rid of the bellicose nonsense” under recent predecessor Grant Shapps.
However, Lynch ruled out canceling eight-day strike in December and January. He said: “If we call off the strikes, we will never get a settlement … My members will not forgive me. I have made a commitment – until we get a tangible result, the action will be on.”
Harper described the meeting at the Department for Transport as “constructive” and added: “There is a deal to be done and I believe we will get there – I will make it easier for the RMT and the employers to reach an agreement and end the conflict to benefit of the traveling public.”
Harper is due to meet the general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef, Mick Whelan, next week, following another 24-hour driver strike on Saturday, November 26, which will halt services on lines across the UK.
Meanwhile, there were pickets outside schools, universities and mail sorting centers at the start of the latest wave of industrial action on Thursday.
Up to 2.5 million students were expected to face disruption in what was billed as the biggest strike in the history of UK higher education.
Around 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU), including lecturers, librarians and researchers, started a 48-hour strike on Thursday, with another one-day strike planned for next Wednesday in a dispute over pay, pensions and contracts.
Jo Grady, general secretary of UCU, said: “If university chancellors don’t get serious, our message is simple: this strike action will only be the beginning.”
University administrators, cleaners, security and catering staff in Unison are also taking action over pay at 19 universities.
In Scotland, schoolchildren stayed home as teachers across the country staged their first national strike over pay in almost 40 years after sacking the latest pay offer as an “insult”.
Only a few primary schools in Orkney and Shetland opened as normal on Thursday as thousands of members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) participated in a one-day strike. Two more school strikes by other unions are planned for December.
Tens of thousands of members of the Communications Workers Union who work for Royal Mail also walked out on Thursday, in the first of 10 days of strikes before Christmas. Strikes are expected to affect deliveries from the peak Black Friday shopping day this week, with the final action due to take place on Christmas Eve.
CWU general secretary Dave Ward said from a picket line in London yesterday that Royal Mail was not paying overtime for overworked workers and accused them of a “psychological attack”. The CWU has rejected a 9%, 18-month pay deal and says plans to change working conditions by Royal Mail would make it a “gig-economy style” employer.
The economic impact of the strikes remains uncertain, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), whose growth figures have previously estimated the range from shutdowns such as the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in September.
“There is a lot of displacement with activity taking place either before or after the days when strikes take place,” a spokesman said. ONS has only recently restarted collect data for strikes after a break during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the four months from June to September, almost three quarters of a million days were lost due to industrial action.
Despite being on track to be the highest figures in more than a decade, they are much lower than during the strike years of the 1970s and 1980s. A total of 29 million days were lost to industrial action in 1979 – the year of the Winter of Discontent – and 27 million were lost during the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-5.