The UK Strike Wave: ‘the genie is out of the bottle’?

Sign saying 'service disrupted'

2023 brought a new wave of strikes following six months of increasing industrial action across the country. More and more workers, including those in key public sector roles, voted for industrial action often with huge majorities and mostly comfortably clearing the high ballot turnout threshold imposed by government legislation aimed at making strikes more difficult. While pay is undoubtedly at the heart of these disputes, workers also cite deteriorating conditions of work and their determination to protect the services they provide as core motivations for their decision to strike.

Throughout the second half of 2022 the upsurge in strike activity was largely led by three unions – Unite in the broader private sector, the RMT on the railways and the CWU in post and telecoms. By the end of January 2023, teachers, civil servants, ambulance staff, nurses, train drivers, physiotherapists, midwives, university staff and workers across different parts of the private sector had all voted for strike action. In January there were 282 different strikes across the UK and on 1 February there were half a million on strike and on 15 March 700,000 took coordinated action.

The scale and scope of industrial unrest in 2023 is distinctive and demands our attention. For example, the vote for strike action by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is the first in Britain in its entire 106-year history. Similarly, for the first time ever, the First Division Association in the Civil Service Fast Stream – the senior civil servants of the future – voted to strike. Even Amazon is now facing the company’s first strike by its workers – 700 of whom have joined the GMB Union in Coventry – and had a 98% vote in favour of strike action when balloted. This is in marked contrast to spontaneous walkouts of the past.

Trade union leaders highlight a number of important factors in play. Perhaps the most obvious is the cost of living crisis that is being experienced across the UK at the present time. We have seen the biggest spike in inflation for 40 years. Price rises for particular items inevitably hit workers hard. Food inflation at 19.2% is still rising and was at the highest for 45 years in the 12 months to March 2023, while gas is at 129% and electricity at 67%. In work poverty means that trainee nurses, teaching assistants, factory workers, retail assistants, delivery drivers and hospitality workers are now included among those regularly using foodbanks. Inflationary prices compound the impact of long standing wage stagnation. The Resolution Foundation noted, for example, that ‘we are on course for… the worst decade for real earnings growth in 210 years’.

The impact of these developments has been felt across the economy. But for public sector workers real wage cuts and freezes have been especially harsh, even to the extent that in January, the civil service union PCS revealed that the government has been  paying thousands of its own employees in DWP less than the 2023 National Living Wage.

Trade union leaders also point to the importance of the social wage – in the shape of our public services – which also come under sustained attack. A decade-long programme of austerity cut deeply into a public sphere that was already in dire need of investment. Since 2010, investment as a proportion of GDP has declined, as has UK government investment in comparison with other peer countries.

As the most prominent public service, the NHS is an exemplar of the problems faced by the public sector as a whole. Underinvestment in NHS staffing, infrastructure and technology, has led to increased pressure and stress on the workforce and had a detrimental impact on service standards resulting in wider public health concerns.

It is in this context that a new group of more combative union leaders have been elected – like Sharon Graham at Unite (elected in 2021), Mick Lynch at the RMT (also elected in 2021) and Dave Ward at the CWU (elected in 2015). Their election perhaps reflects a shifting mood within their own organisations – a demand for action – under the cumulative pressure of events.

And the labour market is tightening as the size of the labour force declines (as a result of several factors including increasing early retirement, growing ill health and the impact of Brexit) . This means it’s harder for employers to easily replace workers, which gives them greater leverage for the first time in many years. This provides particular advantages for certain groups of workers: through Unite, workers in many companies and in many parts of the country have won significant pay increases (for example Asda tanker drivers, Wincanton tanker drivers and security guards employed by OCS).

All of these factors are cited as galvanising the working class and the unions. In the words of Unite general secretary Sharon Graham:

More people feel confident to take strike action, which is something that has not happened for a long time… The workers are learning day by day that they no longer have to accept crumbs from the rich man’s table. The genie is out the bottle…