By Stephen Castle
The winter holiday season across most of Britain ended Tuesday, but the return to work for millions of Britons came on the same day as yet another train strike, promising a commute as unpredictable as the country’s increasingly erratic rail network.
Britain begins the new year just as it ended the old one, in the middle of a wave of labor unrest that has involved as many as 1.5 million workers so far, concentrated in the public sector and formerly state-owned businesses. Nurses in England, Northern Ireland and Wales walked out twice last month; ambulance crews have staged their largest work stoppage in decades; and border agents, postal staff and garbage collectors have taken similar action in a “winter of discontent.”
With wages lagging galloping inflation, many, including nurses, plan to stop work again this month, leading some British news outlets to raise fears of a de facto general strike that could bring the country to a grinding halt.
Yet while months of disruption have eroded some sympathy for rail workers, with the public roughly split over train strikes, support for health workers, whose tireless efforts during the coronavirus pandemic were widely lauded as heroic, remains buoyant.
“January will be the test: Will the British public shift?” said Steven Fielding, an emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. He added that while further rail strikes might prompt a long-predicted backlash against the unions, “it’s remarkable how much it hasn’t happened.”
That is not for want of effort by Britain’s conservative tabloids. One newspaper nicknamed Mick Lynch, the combative leader of a rail union, “The Grinch,” accusing him of wrecking Christmas, spoiling office parties and hampering family reunions. In the city of Bristol, one pub canceled a rail workers’ Christmas party in retaliation for strikes thought to have hurt the hospitality trade.
But in general, support for the strikers has stayed strong, according to a YouGov opinion poll last month, which showed 66% of respondents supported striking nurses and 28% opposed them, 58% favoring firefighters with 33% against, and 43% in favor of rail workers with 49% opposed. Another poll, by Savanta ComRes, found the same percentage in support of further rail strikes, but only 36% opposed.
Even many Britons who support the governing Conservative Party say they believe that health workers have a case, a reflection both of the popularity of the country’s National Health Service and concerns about its ability to cope with huge pressures. And, underscoring a growing sense of malaise, another poll recorded a majority agreeing with the statement that “nothing in Britain works anymore.”
That may pose a challenge for Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who insists that agreeing to raises could embed inflation, which he sees as the real enemy of working people. Instead, he promises new, and as yet unspecified, laws to restrict labor unrest, while critics of trade unions argue rail workers are risking their futures as commuters stay away from a network already suffering from the growth of working from home.
“It’s difficult for everybody because inflation is where it is, and the best way to help them and everyone else in the country is for us to get a grip and reduce inflation as quickly as possible,” Sunak told a parliamentary committee in December, when asked about the plight of striking workers.
News reports suggest that an agreement to end the rolling series of rail strikes could be close, but despite holding the purse strings over the employers of rail staff, the government has resisted direct involvement in negotiations.
The wave of strikes comes amid Britain’s cost-of-living crisis and follows years of constrained public spending, and unions say they are responding to a decade of neglect of vital services.
“I think the fact that this comes after 10 to 12 years of austerity has affected the public mood and is maybe what’s helping the unions and their members not to lose public support,” said Peter Kellner, a polling expert. “The evidence so far is that public opinion hasn’t materially shifted. I don’t see any particular reason why it should, especially with the health service,” he added.
Public sympathy is being driven by a widespread feeling that the health system is understaffed and overwhelmed. One senior doctor made headlines by warning that as many as 500 patients a week could be dying because of long delays in emergency rooms across the country. And on Monday the vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said many emergency departments were in a state of crisis.
Pay levels for nurses are recommended by an independent body whose suggestion of a 4.3% increase, issued before much of last year’s inflation was evident, had been accepted by the government.
That is well short of the 19% demanded by nurses, but ministers have refused to budge, pointing to a 3% annual raise for nurses in 2021, when the pay of many others was frozen for the year.
Britain’s health secretary, Steve Barclay, raised hackles last month by saying that striking ambulance unions had made a “conscious choice to inflict harm on patients” — a statement described by Sharon Graham, general secretary of the union Unite, as a “blatant lie.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, told the broadcaster Sky News, “We have had 10 years where our pay has not kept pace with inflation.” He added that 40,000 government staff members used food banks and that 45,000 of them were so poor they had to claim welfare payments.
Dawn Poole, a striking border force officer at London’s Heathrow International Airport and representative of the union, said that rising food and energy costs, combined with a hike in mortgage interest rates, had been the final straw for already-struggling staff.
“We have had people selling houses to downsize or struggling to pay the rent,” she said.
Sunak’s tough stance is a gamble. If the strikes collapse, that could build his reputation as a leader able to stand firm and administer tough measures to stabilize the economy. It could also bolster his leadership within a fractious Conservative Party, where standing up to trade unions is associated with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979 after labor unrest also known as the winter of discontent and faced down striking miners.
Thatcher, however, prepared for her standoff with the miners, ensuring that coal stocks were high and confronting them at a time when unions were widely seen as too powerful.
By contrast, today’s unions appear to be more in sync with the popular mood, analysts say, because Britons know that well before the strikes, their railways were unreliable and their health service was creaking under acute pressure.
“The argument that ‘We’re on strike to save the National Health Service,’ which is what the nurses have been saying, resonates with what people know from their own experience,” Fielding said.
Kellner, the polling expert, said he believed that the government should separate the nurses and ambulance crews from other strikers.
“As long as the health workers are on strike, the other unions have some degree of cover,” he said. “If in a month’s time we are where we are now, with nothing settled, I think the government will be in a really bad position.”
In the meantime, rail travelers must decide whether to even try to head to the office this week. As one rail operator warned: “Until Jan. 8, only travel by train if absolutely necessary.”