Crisis at Christmas: Strikes disrupt the U.K. during the festive season

Stephen Beard Dec 29, 2022
Heard on:
Workers strike outside a mail-sorting office not far from London. The now-privatized Royal Mail service says it can't afford an inflation-matching pay hike. Mimisse Beard

Crisis at Christmas: Strikes disrupt the U.K. during the festive season

Stephen Beard Dec 29, 2022
Heard on:
Workers strike outside a mail-sorting office not far from London. The now-privatized Royal Mail service says it can't afford an inflation-matching pay hike. Mimisse Beard

The festive season in the United Kingdom has been soured by the worst industrial unrest in more than a decade. Strikes are underway or planned by nurses, junior doctors, train drivers, teachers, border control officials and highway maintenance staff — along with other public sector workers and private sector postal delivery staff.

They all have the same basic demand: They want a pay raise that at least matches the 10.7% inflation rate. 

But the government has set its face against large pay hikes, claiming that they would wreck public finances and fuel further inflation by sparking a wage-price spiral. 

On the picket lines, strikers showed a grim resolve.  

Outside a large hospital in the city of Oxford, dozens of nurses chanted militant slogans and waved angry placards. For the first time in its 106-year history, members of the Royal College of Nursing, the main union representing nursing staff, had called a strike.

Nurses on the picket line in Oxford.
Nurses on the picket line in Oxford — the first strike in the history of the Royal College of Nursing. (Mimisse Beard)

“I’m striking today for all the nurses that have to use food banks because we can’t afford to pay our heating bills and buy food,” said junior pediatric nurse Amelia Trow on the Oxford picket line. “We need to be paid a decent wage.”  

An estimated 100,000 of her fellow nurses at hospitals and clinics across the country walked off the job on two separate days before Christmas in protest over a pay offer of around 4%. Their union is demanding a hike that the government says will amount to 19%. Isn’t that demand wildly unrealistic and untenable?

“Right now, the cost of living crisis is untenable,“ Trow said. “We’re really struggling in the NHS [the U.K.’s state-run National Health Service]. We’re so understaffed. If we want to encourage more people into the profession, we need a decent wage.”  

The average pay for nurses in England is below the country’s average wage and has not kept up with inflation over the past decade. This has led to big staff shortages and more problems for the beleaguered NHS. Striking nurses like Rosie Owen shrug off the concerns that a 19% pay hike might be inflationary.

“Inflation is going crazy anyway,” she said. “But, you know, if you don’t pay nurses and if you don’t pay your key workers properly, the whole thing will collapse.“

The striking nurses said sufficient numbers of their colleagues remained on duty during the two-day walkout to ensure that patients in the most urgent need of care did not suffer.    

“Patients always come first,” insisted Imogen Gregg, who works in the children’s emergency department at the Oxford hospital. “In fact, we are striking to protect patient safety. At the moment, patients are not getting the care they deserve because we are so short-staffed. If we get more pay and more nurses as a result of this strike, everyone will be better off.”

On another picket line — at London’s Heathrow airport — striking border protection workers were also demanding the government ensure adequate levels of staffing for a vital public service by awarding a substantial pay raise to match the soaring cost of living.  

“We’ve been offered 2%,” complained Border Force official Dawn Poole. “A derisory 2%, which doesn’t even cover the monthly standing charge on the energy bill, let alone the hike in food costs.”

Her colleague Manish Udani agreed that the 2% pay offer was “meager, something the government should be ashamed of.”

“This is an important job,” Udani added. “We deal with tourists and business visitors coming into this country to spend money. We bring a lot of revenue into the U.K. and protect the country from terrorism and illegal entrants. We deserve decent pay.” These strikers are demanding a 10% raise.

But why strike at Christmas when many Brits are flying home to be with their loved ones? Isn’t it a bit mean?

“Honestly? We’re at rock bottom,” Poole said. “We literally have no choice. We’ve had to take this drastic action at this particular time. And I hope the public will understand that when you can’t pay your bills or heat your home, something has to change. We’re very sorry about any inconvenience.”

With Army and Navy personnel stepping in to check passports during the strike, things seemed to go quite smoothly at the U.K.’s ports and airports.

On a third picket line, outside a mail-sorting office not far from London, stood employees of the now-privatized Royal Mail service that delivers letters and parcels across the country. The company is losing more than $1 million a day and says it cannot afford to award the workers an inflation-matching pay hike.

Striking mailman Tony Warner is not impressed with that or the government’s call to moderate pay demands.

Striking mailman Tony Warner.
“The working class is really getting pushed to the sidelines,” mailman Tony Warner says. (Mimisse Beard)

“We’re suffering down here and they’re saying, ‘Well, can you please get through it? We can’t give you anything because of inflationary costs or whatever.’ But these people down here, we’re all finding it very hard to manage. The working class is really getting pushed to the sidelines. We’ve got to fight back. We’ve got to stay strong.”

There is a strong whiff of union militancy in the air and a sense that unionism is flexing its muscles again after a long period of decline, since the reforms of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher around 40 years ago.

On the sorting-office picket line, there was a small echo of those strike-torn days. The postal workers were playing a hit song from the ’70s: “Part of the Union” by the Strawbs. Originally written to lampoon union power, the song has become a sort of unofficial anthem of the labor movement, whose members no doubt relish the line: “And I always get my way if I strike for higher pay!”

With many more strikes expected in the new year in hospitals, on the railways, in the classroom and elsewhere, another line in this song may be equally sobering for ministers: “Though I’m a working man, I can ruin the government’s plan.”    

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