British workers have had enough, and they are not afraid to show it. 2022 was the year everyone, it seemed, went on strike.
Since the summer, train drivers, postal workers, warehouse operatives, refuse workers, dockers, barristers and journalists have all downed tools to force their employers to listen to their demands. And the wave shows no sign of slowing, with nurses, teachers, and civil servants among those recently balloting to strike. In total, 741,000 working days were lost to industrial action between June and September.
It’s come with rhetoric not seen in the UK for years. The postal workers’ union accused Royal Mail of “a declaration of war”, while RMT boss Mick Lynch said rail bosses were part of a “cartel” taking part in a “corrupt system”.
Those fighting words make sense against a backdrop of economic and social turmoil. Britain is in the grips of the worst inflation since the 1980s, with the consumer prices index hitting 11.1% in October. That has led to a cost-of-living crisis and drop in living standards, which is hitting those on lower incomes the hardest. One in six people now use food banks and half are struggling to pay their energy bills.
It is little surprise, then, that thousands of workers have baulked at single-digit pay offers. Even a 7% increase (as offered to workers who are members of the RMT) still represents a pay cut in real terms.
For many, the seeming lack of restraint shown when it comes to the salaries and bonuses enjoyed by executives has only added insult to injury. For example, call centre workers and field technicians at BT Group went on strike after receiving a flat £1,500 pay increase. Some are still so badly paid the company set up a food bank in one of its call centres. Meanwhile, CEO Philip Jansen took home a total of £3.5m thanks to the group’s profits of £1.3bn. Journalists at Reach cited similar disparities: the CEO of the newspaper group earns 104 times more than the median employee.
Many workers also felt hard done by after making significant sacrifices during the Covid pandemic. Royal College of Nursing members voted to strike for the first time ever this month, seeking a 17% salary increase. “Covid claps don’t pay the bills,” said the RCN. “Our members will no longer tolerate a financial knife-edge at home and a raw deal at work.”
Others are seeking to rectify pay gaps built up over years. Barristers turned down an initial 15% increase for new cases this autumn, saying decades of cuts to legal aid made anything under 25% unacceptable when junior criminal barristers can earn just £20,000.
In some cases, frustration simply boiled over at untenable working conditions. Workers at Amazon fulfilment centres and oil rigs staged a series of “wildcat” strikes throughout the summer. The unofficial actions, held without the support of a union, are technically illegal but difficult for employers to anticipate or manage.
The government’s response has been defiant, with then-transport minister Grant Shapps branding the rail strikes “a kick in the teeth to workers”. In June, the Conservatives passed a law making it easier for companies to bring in strike-busting agency staff and allowed companies to win more money from unions found to be holding “unlawful” actions.
Public opinion has been more forgiving. In October, a poll showed 64% supported nurses taking industrial action, 55% backed teachers and half were on the side of rail workers. That fell to just 38% for council staff and 33% for barristers, however.
This might give workers teetering on the edge of taking action heart, particularly as unemployment remains low. What is for certain, as more strike ballots are held, is that 2023 will see many workplaces continue to become battlegrounds.