Industrial action in the UK: past and present
Print News Editor Charlie Gershinson reviews the history of industrial action in the UK and the origins of the current unprecedented wave of strikes across different sectors.
For the past century or more, industrial action by labour and trade unions have been a part of the lifeblood of this country’s democratic values. The strikes across various sectors all around the country are becoming an additional chapter in the history of British industrial relations.
To understand the importance of trade unions and the ability for workers to strike as a form of collective action, we must first consider its origins. Amid the Industrial Revolution and its concentration of power in labour relationships to wealthy industrialists all while voting rights were restricted to land-owning aristocrats, working people fought to have a say in the societal fabric of the country. This began with the mid-19th century Chartist movement, which inspired many socialists and trade union leaders to act through general strikes and uprisings to protest against the elite and their immensely unequal distribution of power and wealth.
Throughout history, the aim of strikes has been constant despite differing circumstances: the betterment of pay and working conditions for workers and their families
This continued throughout the 19th century with the New Unionist movement before the Labour Party was formed in 1900 as the political wing of the labour and trade union movement. The power which this movement had accrued became evident in the 1926 General Strike called by the Trades Union Congress. While the aims of the strike to benefit coal workers was unsuccessful, it still saw one million workers strike over eight consecutive days.
As the General Strike and successive strikes have been carried out, such as the miners’ strikes of the 1970s and 1980s, their aim has been constant despite differing circumstances: the betterment of pay and working conditions for workers and their families.
As we face near constant strikes in 2023, this still holds true. The motivation for the current crisis in industrial relations has been the stagnation in growth in many state-owned and privately-owned businesses in recent years. The cause of this intense demand by workers for higher wages is threefold.
The first reason is the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. As largely white-collar, middle class, workers were furloughed or able to work from home for months on end, many blue-collar and public service workers remained unaffected and – in some cases – faced incredible pressure. For example, medical workers were on the frontlines of the pandemic more than any other profession and yet they feel compelled to strike for a reasonable wage increase amid high inflation: our second cause.
Inflation and the cost-of-living crisis has meant that wages must keep apace to ensure that workers don’t face a real terms wage cut. With inflation averaging 9.1 per cent from 2021 to 2022, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has asked for a pay rise of 19 per cent as an opening gambit in pay negotiations. This represents two-thirds of all nursing staff in the UK at 300,000. Meanwhile, the government has remained stubbornly steadfast in their offer of 4.5 per cent, rejected by the RCN. The SNP-led Scottish government’s offer of 7.5 per cent has instead been accepted by some unions, showing a clear divide between the Holyrood and Westminster governments, the latter of which constitutes the final cause of our trifecta.
The current government’s attitude to the public sector is therefore based on a long-standing and entrenched set of policy positions based on the economics of years past
The government’s industrial strategy, particularly concerning pay rises, has become marked as the opposite of a role model both in recent months and in the past 13 years. In the recent past, that stubbornness to move from their opening position can be seen in negotiations with the rail, post and teaching industries, to name but a few. Though evident now, this attitude’s origins can also be found in the 2010s and the Cameron government. In the NHS, David Cameron’s austerity programme has been linked to a shortage of 100,000 nurses and a pay freeze from 2010-2012 followed by a 1 per cent cap on pay increases for the public sector.
The current government’s attitude to the public sector is therefore based on a long-standing and entrenched set of policy positions based on the economics of years past, and not on the current need for investment in the NHS and other public services and for the incentives for the NHS to remained sustainable in the long-term.
Of course, strikes have not only affected the NHS but also our university experience in Exeter and around the country. While the case by the Universities and College Union (UCU) may draw less sympathy from the general public than that by the medical community, the causes of the strike are markedly similar. Three days of strike in 2022 and eighteen planned thus far in 2023 have been due to similar stubbornness shown by universities nationwide to engage with their staff over pay, pensions and working conditions.
A survey conducted by Exeposé has found over 80 per cent of students who responded were overall supportive of the strike action
A pay increase offer of 5 per cent has been described by the UCU as not enough and UCU General Secretary Jo Grady has said: “Staff aren’t asking for much. They want a decent pay rise, secure employment and for devastating pension cuts to be reversed. These demands are reasonable and deliverable by a sector which has over £40bn in reserves.”
While some claim that students are opposed to the UCU strikes, such as the Evening Standard, a small-scale survey conducted by Exeposé has found the opposite. Over 80 per cent of students who responded were overall supportive of the strike action and over 50 per cent were supportive of the unprecedented 18-day strike action proposed by the UCU.
As the cost-of-living crisis and the government’s resistance continues and the union position hardens, what can we expect in the coming weeks and months for UK industrial action? In short, more of the same. As history dictates, so long as two sides of any major industrial dispute are so far apart then little to no progress can be made. Barring any significant change in attitude by either side, there will be no immediate shift.