The United Kingdom’s Winter of Discontent

The United Kingdom has had an eventful winter on the labour front, with a wave of strikes hitting the country and bad news on wages. This week’s post will be exploring the wave of strikes, whilst next week I will be exploring the issue of pay in the UK.

December and January have been seen dozens of strikes, with railways, the Post Office and airline staff walking off the job across the UK. The strikes were triggered by a range of issues, but most were largely centred around issues of pay, safety, the role of unions and staff losses. Strikes on the railways were particularly disruptive, with the already salient issue of unreliable trains and poor conditions for passengers being compounded by cancellations on key routes. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were effected in the South-East of England, with the Guardian documenting the experience of passengers who were unaware of the strikes or who had to travel for far longer to make their journeys. Southern Rail, the rail firm affected by the strikes, has avoided bearing the cost of the strikes based on an agreement with the Government that has seen it receive up to £50 million in compensation. With such agreements in place, the impact of the strike as a bargaining tool has been minimised, as Sothern’s bottom line remains strong. Instead, the Government has been forced to step in and offer direct talks with the unions behind the crisis.

The Responses 

Throughout the crisis the British Government has repeatedly hit out at unions and strikers, suggesting they showed ‘contempt’ for the British people. The Transport Minister, Chris Grayling, criticised strikers and said he would ‘not rule anything out’ in seeking to prevent future strikes. The response from many Conservatives, whose constituents have been most effected by rail strikes, has been highly critical. A common theme has been the notion that passengers should not be ‘held hostage’ by small numbers of conductors and drivers. The Government, arguably missing the point of a strike, accused the unions of inflicting ‘maximum pain’ on commuters. Fifty Conservative backbenchers wrote to the Telegraph newspaper demanding that strikes such as those seen over the Christmas break never be allowed to happen again. The MPs demanded new legislation that would protect ‘critical public infrastructure’ unless the action is found to be ‘reasonable and proportionate’ by a judge. They also wrote that unions in critical sectors be required to maintain half capacity during strikes, substantially circumscribing the bargaining power of unions. Despite the growing complaints of her backbenchers, the Prime Minister has resisted calls for legislative changes, likely in the belief that they may trigger further strikes in protest and undermine the Government’s ability to resolve the current crisis. Furthermore, the Conservative’s only hold a narrow majority in Parliament. The Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has stood by the strikers, saying he would picket with them. However, new polls show the Labour Party 16 percentage points behind the Conservatives, making them a somewhat less useful ally than in previous years.

The Strikes in Context

Despite the seeming rise in strikes, the total hours lost to strikes in the UK remains low when compared with previous years. Only 218,000 days were lost to strikes in the first 10 months of 2016, down from one million in 2008. In 1926, a national strike cost over 162 million working days, and brought British society to a standstill. The recent drop in days lost is partly attributable to a wave of anti-union and anti-strike laws that the British Conservative Government has passed in recent years. The 2016 Trade Union Act introduced a new 50% turnout threshold, which must be met if a strike is to be legally carried out. Furthermore, in key sectors like health, education, transport, border security and fire sectors, 40% of eligible voters must support strike action, on top of the 50% threshold.

No End in Sight

The strikes of the last two months have revealed the frustration that many workers feel in a Britain where the Government’s much touted recovery has not helped all, and where businesses are seeking to cut costs by reducing worker numbers. The strikes have also underlined the fissures in British politics and labour regulation, with commuters and customers caught in the middle of a fight over the very future of unionism in Britain.

Join us next week for a look at the UK’s pay problem, with stagnating wages and rampant underpayment undermining Prime Minister Theresa May’s suggestion that she is fighting for the ‘just about managing families’.

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