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Employment

Will there be a national strike?

Multiple unions have said that they may be forced to call for a strike if pay doesn’t rise to match inflation. But will it cause a national strike?

Disputes between workers and their employers in the UK are at their highest rate in five years as inflation hits pay packets across many sectors.

The cost of living is rising. Three in four are Brits worried about the increased cost of food, while one in six now rely on food banks to get by. As the value of wages drops, many Brits are demanding a pay rise in an attempt to counteract the biggest drop in living standards on record.

Unions are at the forefront of making these demands heard and co-ordinated action called by multiple unions could form a national strike. Here’s what you need to know about the extent of the disruption Britain could be facing this summer. 

What is a national strike?

Also called a general strike, a national strike is when a substantial proportion of workers in multiple sectors refuse to go to work until their demands, usually around pay and working conditions, are met. 

Why are some unions calling for strike action?

Inflation reached a 40-year high of nine per cent in April 2022, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has announced, meaning that the cost of everyday essentials including food and fuel is, on average, 9 per cent higher than the same time last year. This means that any pay rise below nine per cent, is being considered by many as a pay cut. 

Yet for many workers, their pay hasn’t risen to match. Union RMT says that its members who work for Network Rail haven’t been given a pay rise for three years, which is why the union has been forced to call a strike. 

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Many other unions are calling for pay rises for their members, either to match inflation or come close. Whether they will go so far as to strike is to be decided. 

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Who is calling for a national strike?

Transport unions RMT, the TSSA and Aslef have called multiple strikes this summer, with workers at National Rail, ScotRail, Transport for London and Heathrow Airport all set to walk out. Strikes will hit Network rail and other transport operators in late-June in what will be the biggest dispute since 1989.

Gary Smith, general secretary of union GMB, has said he would be willing to coordinate strike action with other unions in order to “leverage our power”. Smith has denied that unions are already planning a co-ordinated strike but warned it could happen unless ministers and employers concede to workers’ demands for pay to match inflation. 

Public-sector union Unison, which has 1.3 million members working in local authorities including the NHS, education, gas and electricity, and police, has told its branches to get “strike ready”. 

The union’s general-secretary Christina McAnea, told BBC Newsnight that “No trade union leader goes for strike action as their first resort”, but she would be willing to tell Unison’s members to strike if their demands for pay rises are not taken seriously. 

Legislation introduced in the 1980s bans “sympathy strikes” which take place when a union instructs its members to go on strike in support of another union and its causes. However this legislation would not stop separate unions co-ordinating the timing of their strikes to form a national strike.

When was the last national strike in the UK?

It’s been almost a century since the UK last saw a general strike. The TUC called a general strike in May 1926 in defence of 1.2 million miners. 

The UK almost saw a national strike in 2011 when millions of public sector workers went on strike in 2011 in response to changes in pensions for public sector workers. The industrial action forced two-thirds of state schools to close and thousands of hospital operations to be postponed, and rallies were held across the UK. 

Unions claimed that up to two million people refused to go to work. The strikes were largely confined to those working in the public sector, but have been described as a “public sector general strike”.

What caused the 1926 General Strike?

Owners of some of Britain’s biggest mines demanded that their employees work longer hours for less money. The miners contested this, which led to them being locked out of the mines in which they worked. After two days of stalemate, the TUC called a national strike.

The goal of the strike was to force the government to prevent mine owners from reducing miners’ wages by 13 per cent and increasing their shifts from seven to eight hours a day.

Up to 1.7 million people working in transport, heavy industry, printing, fuel and dock workers refused to go to work on the first day of the national strike, in solidarity with the miners. 

After nine days, and as a growing number of largely middle class people volunteered to take on the roles of the strikers, the strike was called off. Six months later, most of the miners were back down the mines, working longer hours for less money, or were unemployed. 

What has the government done in response to the threat of a national strike?

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has said his ministers are looking into making industrial action illegal unless a minimum number of staff worked a skeleton service. The government is also considering changes to the law that would allow agency workers to fill in for striking staff.

The measures have been billed by the government as necessary to reduce disruption to essential services, and were promised in the 2015 Tory manifesto which stated: “We will… repeal nonsensical restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes.”

But critics of the government have called the threats an attack on the “right to strike”. This right is largely recognised as fundamental to democracy, and is enshrined in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Responding to the government’s proposed law changes that would be used to break strikes, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “If the government continues to fly this ‘false flag’, then the trade union movement must be ready to respond.

“Rather than attack the rights of workers, it is high time that politicians of all parties argued for a cap on profits not pay. Why is it ok for faceless corporations to rip off the public through price gouging but not for workers to take action to defend their living standards?

“With UK workers already subject to the most restrictive labour laws in Europe, as a nation we need to think again about in whose interests we want our economy to run.”

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