Why are so many workers going on strike?


Rail workers from three trade unions hold a co-ordinated strike, 1 OctoberImage source, Getty

Tens of thousands of workers have downed tools this year to request pay deals that keep up with the rising cost of living.

The public is having to deal with disruption from train and postal strikes, as well as closed schools, overflowing bins and gridlock in the courts.

There could be further strikes through the winter and next year, as doctors, nurses and civil servants are also in dispute with their employers.

Why are the strikes happening?

The disputes are over working conditions, pensions and pay.

Prices are rising at over 11% per year, the fastest rate for 40 years.

That means workers are seeing their living costs rising faster than their wages, leaving them worse off.

Employees in many industries belong to trade unions, which are organisations that represent their interests to management, and negotiate on their behalf over pay, jobs and working conditions.

When those unions have not been able to get a pay deal they feel is fair, or to agree a compromise, they can ask their members to vote on whether to take industrial action.

At the most extreme, this means going on strike where workers refuse to do their jobs.

Workers can also take less drastic measures to put pressure on their employers, such as refusing to do overtime. In some professions basic services are maintained. Doctors and nurses won’t completely stop work as that would put lives at risk.

Industrial disputes have been rising since the pandemic.

In 2019, on average 19,500 days a month were lost to strike action. In July 2022, the figure was 87,600, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Postal workers and strike action protesters outside the Mount Pleasant Royal Mail sorting office

Who is striking?

The most high-profile strikes include:

Who else is considering industrial action?

Does the public support strike action?

A number of polls have asked whether the general public supports strikes.

A poll at the end of October by Savanta ComRes found that 60% generally support workers taking industrial action, with 33% opposed.

Asked about strikes over pay and conditions, support varied widely between different industries, with nurses and teachers attracting the most.

In the summer, polls on the rail strike from Ipsos and Opinium found roughly equal numbers supporting and opposing it.

What do employers say?

Staff wages are a major cost for most businesses and some of the companies which are in dispute with their workers say they do not have enough money to give pay rises.

Royal Mail and the rail companies say they want to agree new working practices alongside a pay award, which has proved another point of dispute.

Doctors, nurses, and the striking lawyers are paid by the government. Their salary is set by a review process which published its findings in July, presenting millions of workers with below-inflation pay rises.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has warned of a “profound economic crisis” with “difficult decisions to come” – which will make it hard to make a more generous pay offer to public sector workers.

The Bank of England worries that if workers win big pay rises, their employers will in turn have to put prices up for customers. That pushes up inflation, causing workers to request bigger pay rises, creating a “wage-price” spiral which could make inflation harder to bring down.

However, some workers are in a strong position as unemployment is extremely low. There are more vacancies than people looking for work and many businesses are short of workers.

The Trades Union Congress argues that on average workers earn less than they did in 2008 – the longest period without an increase in earnings for 200 years.

Image source, Getty

Image caption,

Nurses join a cost of living protest in June

What do workers earn?

Pay varies hugely between industries, job roles and how senior workers are.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics found that railway workers earn an average of £43,000. Train drivers earn the most – averaging £59,000 – while travel assistants earn £33,000.

Nurses in England earn between £27,000 and £55,000, with the average at around £32,000 according to the RCN.

In the last school year, state school classroom teachers in England were paid an average of £38,982, £39,009 in Wales and £40,026 in Scotland. The average head teacher’s salary in England last year was £74,095, and £57,117 for other senior leaders.

Has anyone managed to get big pay rises?

A number of disputes have been resolved this year, with some workers being awarded pay rises of 10% or more.