Strikes in Crisis: UK protests at a time of economic change

by Natalie Olofsson

The UK 2022 holiday season was marred by a series of train, mail, and education strikes. In the busiest travel period of the year such strikes have been heavily detrimental to both those travelling for Christmas and the train and mail industries, which rely strongly on the Christmas season for their yearly revenue. However, such strikes during a period of increased economic activity will have the strongest impact on policy regarding wages: by demonstrating the influence of said industry on nationwide lifestyles, unions have higher bargaining power for members’ needs. Regardless of the effects such strikes have on consumers and passengers, they demonstrate a desire for wages which keep up with the nation’s energy crisis and inflation changes. 

Strikes in December can be divided into a number of industries: namely shipping, transport, healthcare workers, and education. The given sectors rely on both private firms and government policies on wages in order to suggest annual improvements. Many of these public sectors have seen little to no pay increases over the past decade; in contrast the private sector has seen proportionately higher increases to annual salaries. With inflation at 11% in October, largely due to increased energy costs, many workers feel the added pressure of budgeting at a lower real wage than when starting their current positions.

Royal Mail, which employs nearly 160,000 workers in the UK,  saw employees strike on December 9, 11, 14-15, and 23-24. With the busiest time of year for shipping parcels — due to higher spending on consumer goods in preparation for Christmas— those who did not strike felt added pressure to increase work hours during the holidays. Further, consumers observed Christmas parcels arriving after Christmas. 

In regards to transportation the UK saw strikes in the train sector and regional buses. Train strikes have seen arguably the most media attention, with mid-December strikes  halting much of the affordable travel during the month. Leader of the National Union of Rail, Mick Lynch, is at the forefront of a campaign for an increased pay offer for workers. Compromises between the government and labour unions yield concerningly little headway: current Prime Minister R. Sunak reiterated in a public statement the government’s inability to institute pay rises. A similar sentiment, in which public sector unions struggle to influence their members current salaries, is seen in employee discontent for educators.

For those in the Scottish education system, both university students and those in secondary school find their education affected by strikes. In early December the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association and NASUWT unions began two days of strikes, in reaction to a dispute over pay. These strikes affect schools throughout the country. Although the nation’s teachers have not striked in nearly 40 years, in response to a pay deal which has not gone through many are facing the same cost of living disputes as those in other public sectors. It is unclear whether the same disputes will result in strikes in England and Wales. 

2022 turned out to be a year of strikes in other European countries as well. Disputes are primarily in regards to pay, as well as some over working hours and poor labour conditions. Factors such as energy costs — which due to the Russo-Ukraine war have disrupted Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels — have increased the cost of living continent wide. Eurostar and Ryanair, which are major contributors to the rail and air transport sectors, respectively, have strike actions planned throughout December. Fragments of the firms have been striking continuously: union members for Ryanair Spain are continuing an ongoing strike beginning in June. 

Although trade unions have seen dwindling membership in the UK since their peak in the late 70s, there has been a contrasting increase in membership for the past four years. This rise in union participation is seen particularly in the public sector, whilst private sector membership remains stagnant or diminishing. Such a discrepancy aids in explaining why recent significant strikes are concentrated in public infrastructure — in particular healthcare, transportation, and education. 

This year’s round of strikes is indicative of a dissatisfaction in wages for the public sector: as a consequence of a rising cost of living, which government funded services may fail to account for in yearly wages, the sectors’ unions view striking as the strongest way to voice their convictions. As the December 2022 strikes recede and economic predictions for 2023 come to fruition, the wellbeing of public workers is crucial to the stability of the nation’s transportation, healthcare system, and education. Whether it is providing reliable transportation or improving continuously overrun NHS services, the first quarters of 2023 will rely on improvements to worker conditions to keep the nation’s services running.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Photo by Martin Pope/Getty Images

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