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The labor strikes in Britain are years in the making

Austerity, Brexit, wage stagnation, and a cost-of-living crisis have pushed British workers to the brink.

A crowd of strikers carries colorful handmade signs of protest.
Teachers join civil servants and rail workers in strikes across the UK.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

British workers have hit a breaking point, with half a million people, including nurses, railway workers, and teachers, striking Wednesday for wages that match the pace of inflation and the actual value of their labor. Though the UK’s cost-of-living crisis has affected most sectors, it’s only the latest of a cascading series of problems for the country’s workers.

The strikes emerged following a decade-plus of austerity programs and social services cuts that have hit the poor and middle class particularly hard as well as dramatic shifts in the UK economy, which some experts say have exacerbated inequality.

Wednesday’s strikes were the largest in a decade, closing schools and stopping the country’s rail service. The UK’s public services, including the National Health Service (NHS), schools, rail and maritime services, firefighters, and police, have suffered from a lack of government investment over the past decade and, in particular, under the UK’s Conservative Party. That lack of investment has been further amplified for the NHS due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which overloaded the already-stretched system.

Railway workers, led by National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers General Secretary Mick Lynch, have been holding strikes since the summer due to what the union says is a proposed pay cut over the next two years, as well as proposed job and service upgrade cuts. The government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has responded by admonishing the workers, condemning the strikes, and backing legislation around minimum service levels, which would limit workers’ right to strike if it passes Parliament.

The strikes have spread to civil service workers, like those in His Majesty’s Treasury and workers who manage passport applications and driving tests, over the same concerns with wage stagnation.

UK inflation peaked at 11.1 percent last year according to the Financial Times and has been hovering around 10 percent, but pay for public sector workers hasn’t kept up. A proposed pay raise for public sector workers averaged around 5 percent, with civil service workers given a raise of only about 2 or 3 percent.

“[NHS workers] had a flat-rate pay rise of £1,400 (no matter what pay grade they were on) last year,” Anthony Barnes, a spokesperson for UNISON, the public service union, told Vox. “That works out at something like a 4.5 percent pay rise on average. That might sound okay, but inflation has been around 10-11 percent for months.” Barnes also pointed to “catastrophic staff shortages” because workers are leaving the service for better-paying work. “That puts extra pressure on the people who remain, and yet with pay running so far behind inflation, the pay ‘rise’ amounts to a pay cut.”

Wednesday’s strikes — and the further actions planned — indicate that the government, employers, and unions are far from a resolution. They also speak to bigger problems in the UK’s economy, going back to Brexit and before.

More than just economic demands, though, the strikes are about politics and policy — asking what kind of government can not only negotiate with workers but also mitigate some of the problems that have brought about the current economic and labor conditions.

The UK’s economic and political decisions have led to this moment

The current cost of living crisis brought on by inflation and the energy shortage due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is no doubt dire. But it didn’t come from nowhere; rather, it’s the apotheosis of a series of economic and political decisions that have drained social services while depending on them both from a practical and economic standpoint, increased inequality, and cut off opportunities for growth.

The cost-of-living crisis is “probably more of a tipping point, rather than the underlying causal driver” of the strikes, Liam Stanley, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Sheffield, told Vox. “It’s quite difficult to disentangle all of the different factors because the UK’s been quite dysfunctional for quite a long time.”

The UK’s economy probably doesn’t conjure an image of dysfunction. But this past September, former Prime Minister Liz Truss exposed some of the country’s economic precarity when she unveiled a tax plan — quickly reversed — which would have lowered taxes for the nation’s wealthiest and provided tax breaks for corporations.

That plan caused chaos in the financial markets because it was such a radical departure from mainstream economic understanding: injecting money into the economy through tax breaks only exacerbates inflation. Corporations and other governments no longer had faith in the UK economy under Truss’s leadership, so they divested from it, causing the UK’s currency, the pound sterling, to fall to its lowest-ever value against the dollar.

Furthermore, governments have to raise money for services they provide, like schooling, health services, taxation and benefits, and more. Taxes and foreign investment are two obvious ways to do that, and when Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng announced the plan, it raised questions about how her government would pay for the services, including the treasured NHS, that already suffered for years from underfunding.

Mark Blyth, director of the William R. Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance at Brown University, pointed out to Vox in a September email interview that the UK government has been doing “astonishing acts of self harm” for years, including “cuts in spending on a state that has already been cut to the bone.” After the 2008 financial crash, the UK government under Tory Prime Minister David Cameron drastically cut resources for everything from food safety and air quality inspection to elder care.

Technically, the NHS and public education were to be spared those cuts, but the austerity program overall undercut British society and further entrenched inequality such that in 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston delivered a scathing report on its effects. Because of that program, he wrote at the time, “great misery has ... been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping.”

Another facet of the economic crisis, Blyth said, is Brexit, which “lost the UK the export markets they might use to grow out of this crisis.” That assessment is echoed in data from a 2022 report by the Center for Economic Policy Research, which shows a major decline in goods and service exports to Europe due to Brexit and its trade policies, in addition to causing shortages and rising prices on goods imported from Europe.

Brexit caused further insularity in the economy — which had already grown away from industry and manufacturing and toward what Stanley calls “rentier capitalism” — the ownership of a few prized assets like land, intellectual property, or natural resources, which are then rented out, to the cost of the many and benefit of the few.

Rather than industry and manufacturing, the UK’s economy is now based on services and the so-called rentier capitalism, increasing economic inequality over the past several years while also failing to produce innovation that could increase economic growth. To that point, the International Monetary Fund has forecast that the UK’s economy will contract by 0.6 percent this year, performing worse than other developed economies, and even Russia’s, which is under a punishing sanctions regime.

In the near term, worker power is set to continue

Wednesday’s strikes were the largest in a decade, but they won’t be the last. Barnes told Vox that UNISON members will strike again on Friday, February 10. More actions across a variety of sectors are planned for February and March.

Lynch promised further action in a speech at Westminster on Wednesday. “We’re not going to win it in one day,” he said. “We’re going to win it by staying the course. We’re going to have to dig in.”

That doesn’t just mean continued strikes, although those are certainly part of the plan. It also means taking political and legal action.

The current strike bill moving through Parliament, for example, faces potential legal action from the Trades Union Congress, Tim Sharp, senior policy officer for employment, told Vox in an interview Friday. “We think that it’s highly likely that what the government proposes is illegal,” Sharp said, and runs afoul of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. “We think it’s contrary to what the [International Labor Organization] requires in terms of the right to strike.”

The UK doesn’t have enshrined into its law the right to strike, although work stoppage is legal provided trade unions follow specific government procedures. What the minimum services bill would do, Sharp explained, would give the government more power over work stoppage because service minimums would be decided by government ministers — not employers or unions.

Should they take the reins in the next general election, the Labour party has promised to repeal the minimum service bill if it’s signed into law. But ultimately what the unions and the striking workers demand is a government that is responsive to the needs of workers — that will prioritize funding the public services so many depend on and work toward an economy capable of serving its people. Lynch’s speech on Wednesday called for politicians to respond to worker demands for better pay.

“If they’re not, they’d better get out of the way now,” he said. “Let’s get a general election on, and let’s get a new government that acts on behalf of our people.”

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