More strikes could start this fall, threatening unprecedented disruption in a number of industries. teachers doctors and nurses will vote to strike in the coming weeks. Unions could even coordinate their strikes. Unite and Unison – the nation’s largest unions with a combined 2.7 million members – are calling on others to join them in synchronized action.
This is one of the most significant industrial unrest in the United Kingdom since the “winter of discontent” in the late 1970s, when runaway inflation pushed workers into massive strikes. Between November 1978 and February 1979, about 7.9 million workdays were lost, according to the Office for National Statistics.
And average electricity bills for households, already up 54% this year, will rise another 80% in October to £3,549 ($4,124). Research firm Auxilione estimates that average bills could hit £7,700 ($8,949) next April, equivalent to £642 ($746) a month.
The workers are mobilizing in response.
Britain has never seen [this] the level of disruption across all sectors,” Chiara Benassi, assistant professor of comparative labor relations at King’s College London, told CNN Business.
“These strikes affect not only [what] we would say [are] manual occupations or low-skill jobs that will obviously fight the cost-of-living crisis, as well as high-skill jobs such as junior doctors, British Telecom engineers, lawyers, scientists, teachers,” Benassi said.
Deepsha Agrawal, a junior doctor at Oxford University Hospital, told CNN Business her colleagues are pushing for a bigger pay rise than the 2% the government agreed to back in 2019.
“It’s quite demoralizing because the current inflation rate is expected to be very high next year,” she said.
Its union, the British Medical Association, will soon vote for its members to decide whether to go on strike. Agrawal thinks they will. Many of her colleagues feel that they cannot afford to buy a house or have children.
“[Junior doctors] as hardworking and educated as other professionals. We fight and pay out of our own pocket for what we do,” she said.
“With what happened during Covid, we should be rewarded for what we did, not punished for what we do every day,” Agrawal added.
Fewer union members
The current wave of strikes is hard to compare to the 1970s and 1980s, if only because the government stopped tracking the number of workers on strike and days lost during the Covid-19 pandemic. It recently started collecting data again and will provide an update this month.
Richard Hyman, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, told CNN Business that this year’s strikes pale in comparison to those of previous decades simply because union membership has plummeted.
“Around 1980, more than half of the workforce was in unions. Today they are less than a quarter, so there has been a big decline,” Hyman said.
Strikes used to be concentrated in sectors “more or less disappeared” like mining coal and steel, Hyman added. Now union membership leans more towards the public sector or large utility companies that used to be owned by the government.
“There has been an increase in precarious work so that a growing proportion of workers simply no longer have proper jobs, so they are not in a position to go on strike,” Hyman added.
Benassi said that in the 1980s, when the UK’s manufacturing industry was rapidly shrinking, strikes were often tied to the survival of key sectors.
Between 1984 and 1985, thousands of miners went on strike after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government threatened to close many of the country’s coal mines.
“[Today] it’s a little different because we’re only talking about the board. Of course, there were disputes at that time about wages, but also about, for example, not closing the mines, ”she said.
New restrictions coming?
However, this year’s wave of strikes is significant for a wide range of affected industries and as British workers struggle to legally shut down tools.
“It is very difficult to strike in the UK. It is much more difficult than anywhere else in Western Europe, especially after the 2016 trade union bill,” she said.
A law that went into effect in 2017 made it much harder for unions to go on strike by requiring at least 50% of the members must take part in the vote and at least 40% of the votes cast in favor of the strike. The law also increased the notice period for employers’ unions of their intention to strike from one week to two.
In comparison, Benassi said that neither a vote nor a notice period is required in Germany.
Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary and favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister next week, said she would impose even tighter restrictions on the power of unions to call a strike.
She proposed raising the strike support threshold from 40% to 50% of the votes cast and extending the notice period to a month.
Leadership campaign Liz Truss declined to comment when contacted by CNN Business.
“There is quite a hostile campaign going on from the government to say that we will send agency workers instead of the strikers, or they should return to work immediately, or there has already been a pay increase,” Manuela Galetto, associate professor of industrial relations at the University of Warwick Business School, told CNN Business.
Despite the setbacks, workers may feel more courage to strike at the moment, given the tight job market, she said.
The unemployment rate in the UK between April and June of this year was 3.8%, according to the ONS. This is the lowest level in more than 50 years. In addition, there was one unemployed person for every vacancy, a record low.
“This means that many workers are working and they may ask [a pay] increase. They can’t be easily replaced [at a macro level]” said Galetto.