Strikes in Britain: Paramedics and nurses have joined the British wave of strikes. What is behind the disputes?


Another day, another round of strikes in Britain.

Shortly before the Christmas holidays, railway workers paralyzed the transport network. Border Force personnel prepare to go outside. Postal workers, bus drivers and civil servants are either in the midst of strikes or are threatening to strike.

This week, nurses staged their biggest strike in decades. And on Wednesday, paramedics are going on strike across many parts of England in a particularly bitter row that will further roil an already devastated public health system.

A spate of sectoral disputes have coalesced into a broader sense that something is very wrong in the UK, with workers saying their pay, working conditions and ability to provide essential services have been hurt by years of cuts and underinvestment .

How did it get to such a low point?

Thursday’s strike by ambulance workers demanding a pay rise in line with inflation comes after thousands of nurses evacuated on December 15-20.

Not only health and emergency services are affected; Almost all forms of travel are being affected in some way by the strike, or are expected to be in the coming weeks — as is education, the criminal justice system, the postal service, and a host of other sectors.

  • Rail strikes have been raging for several months and often dominate the UK front pages. The RMT union, which mainly represents guards, ticket inspectors and maintenance workers, has called a series of strikes, including over the Christmas period. ASLEF, which represents train drivers, also has actions planned for January. Railway workers want better pay and more job security.
  • Postal workers at Royal Mail, which is now a private company, are taking action in the run up to Christmas that is disrupting delivery during the busy Christmas period.
  • Border Forces workers in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) went on eight-day strike during the holiday season. The strikes will affect London Heathrow Airport and the hubs of London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Glasgow. Baggage handlers have also run out on some dates.
  • Bus drivers in London planned a series of strikes throughout December.
  • Several teachers’ unions are advising their members about going on strike after wage offers have been turned down. A national teachers’ strike is already planned for Scotland next month.
  • At the beginning of winter, defense lawyers went on strike before voting to accept a salary offer and end the action.

Every workforce has industry-specific grievances that have led them to picket lines. But the strike wave must also be seen in the light of the UK’s long-lasting economic and social stagnation, which has left workers desperate for better conditions.

A cost of living crisis and rising inflation have left Brits worse off this year. Adjusted for inflation, wages in the UK have fallen at one of the sharpest rates since records began in 2001, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

And in particular, UK public sector workers are bearing the brunt; Average wage growth in the private sector in mid-2022 was 6.9%, compared with 2.7% in the public sector – the ONS said this gap is “one of the largest differences between private and public sector growth rates that we have ever seen.” have seen”.

Still, the anger of many striking workers can be traced back further than the current economic crisis.

Ever since former Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity program resulted in slashing public service budgets, employees have complained about a shrinking of many local authorities and institutional safety nets in the UK.

Funding for local councils and schools plummeted over the course of the 2010s, a decade of decline that critics say has held Britain back and left a gash in the services parents, children and citizens rely on every day.

The aftershocks of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have further tightened the purse strings and hampered a cautious attempt to emerge from the stingy approach that characterized the 2010s.

More recently, instability at the heart of government – Britain is its fifth prime minister in six years – and a disastrous fiscal program unveiled by shambolic ex-prime minister Liz Truss have dashed hopes of many Britons for a public sector boom near future.

British railways have been badly affected by strikes for months.

Strikes in the National Health Service – a pillar of the UK National Identity and one of the world’s most acclaimed government programs – are rare.

As of this month, the UK’s largest nurses’ union had never called a strike in its 106-year history. Wednesday’s ambulance strike is the first such action since 1990.

There are some concerns about the level of service that will continue during the strike. Members of the armed forces are being deployed to help alleviate the impact and Health Secretary Will Quince suggested on BBC radio that people should avoid contact sports or other “risky activities” while emergency services are suspended, comments that have been roundly criticized as reckless .

But NHS staff have been marginalized in recent years, with a staffing crisis, low wages and skyrocketing waiting lists, leaving hospitals and wards overcrowded and staff exhausted.

Brits now have to wait an hour on average for an ambulance after reporting a suspected heart attack, stroke or similar problem, despite an 18-minute national target. The waiting time for a “Category 1” call relating to immediate life threats is up to 10 minutes, despite a seven-minute requirement.

Conditions don’t always improve when a patient arrives at the hospital, where wait times are at record highs. Every day across the country, ambulances line emergency rooms waiting to discharge their patients.

In the West Midlands region of England, one person died in 2020 after an ambulance was delayed. In the first nine months of 2022, that number had risen to 37, according to BBC program Newsnight, which obtained the figures following a Freedom of Information request.

“The reality is that nurses across the UK go to understaffed hospitals every day,” Andrea Mackay, who worked as a nurse at a hospital in south-west England for seven years, told CNN last week of her reasons for the strike.

“During one of my worst shifts, I was the sole nurse for 28 sick children,” added Jessie Collins, a pediatric nurse. “It’s not safe and we can’t provide the care that these children sometimes need.”

This wave of strikes is the largest to hit Britain in a decade and the sheer number of services affected has drawn comparisons to the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978-79.

This period was followed by bitter wage disputes between the government and the public and private sectors; After winning the 1979 election, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher campaigned largely victorious Battle with many British unions, severely weakening their power.

In reality, the strikes of 2022 caused only a fraction of the impact these had.

A total of 417,000 workdays were lost to strikes in October, the latest month for which figures are available, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – a far cry from the several million days lost in the late 1970s.

But October’s figure is the highest for any month since 2011, and virtually all wage disputes appear far from resolved, fueling fears that next year will be a year of mass disruption.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government says it cannot afford wage demands from public sector unions. In the case of rail strikes, it has said the responsibility lies with private rail companies to resolve the disputes – despite the fact that the government is controlling the wallets after bailing out the network during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the ongoing disruption is a major headache for Sunak, who has supplanted Truss with a promise of a sensible and measured approach to the ailing UK economy.

Opinion polls show that the government bears much of the blame for the spate of workers’ unrest and that the public is generally sympathetic to striking workers.

Ministers have repeatedly taken a firm stance, refusing to bow to a union’s demands – and facing criticism for not trying hard enough put an end to the quarrel.

Rishi Sunak has opposed the unions' demands but has been accused of not doing enough to end the strikes.

opposition Union leader Keir Starmer attacked Sunak last week over the nurses’ strike in Parliament, telling him that “the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief” if he ended the strike through a deal with the RCN.

The industrial action is a “disgrace to this government,” Starmer said.

His party, which has historic ties to several unions, is taking a thorny stance on the strikes; Starmer has declined to explicitly back the unions’ demands but has pointed to their strikes as evidence that the Conservatives have brought the economy to a standstill.

These arguments will be tested even further in the Christmas and New Year season, and public opinion will be crucial to either bolstering the government or forcing it to the negotiating table.

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