Explained: Why UK has been hit by a wave of strikes

Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’ does not seem to end in the near future. After a 48-hour strike by rail workers which lasted till Wednesday (14 December), now nurses across the UK have walked out demanding higher pay amid soaring inflation.

More than tens of thousands of members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) – the UK’s biggest nursing union – in England, Wales and Northern Ireland kicked off a strike today (15 December).

While routine surgery and other planned treatment are likely to be affected, healthcare workers will continue to provide treatments such as chemotherapy, dialysis and intensive care to patients.

Many protests have been planned throughout the month of December by union workers across the UK. This industrial action is expected to be the largest in the country since the late 1980s, says Quartz.

How industrial action will hit the UK over the festival season? We explain.

Nurses strike

In its first-ever national walkout, National Health Service (NHS) nurses have staged strikes across the UK.

An estimated 1,00,000 nurses will protest at 76 hospitals and health centres, calling for better pay services to tackle the cost of living crises, Reuters reported.

Pat Cullen, the head of the RCN union, told BBC, “What a tragic day. This is a tragic day for nursing, it is a tragic day for patients, patients in hospitals like this, and it is a tragic day for people of this society and for our NHS”.

Cullen has urged the UK government to “do the decent thing” and settle the pay dispute before the end of the year.

Nurses have asked for a 19 per cent increase in pay, which the UK government has called unaffordable.

Winter of Discontent Why UK has been hit by a wave of strikes

Nurses in the UK are demanding higher pay. AP File Photo

The nurses have argue that low pay leads to staff shortages and unsafe care for patients, as per Reuters. 

“Nurses have had enough – we are underpaid and undervalued,” nurse anaesthetist and local RCN steward Lyndsay Thompson, from Northern Ireland, was quoted as saying by BBC.

Thompson said her colleagues “absolutely do not want to strike” but have to take action “to protect the NHS”.

Nurses in Scotland have “paused: the strike after a fresh pay offer was made. They will vote on the deal and results are expected next week, BBC reported.

Rail services hit

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT), the UK’s biggest rail union, has organised strikes over the holiday season and even next year – 13, 14, 16 and 17 December and 3, 4, 6 and 7 January.

Network Rail, in charge of managing most of the railway network in Great Britain, has warned of “significantly reduced train services” and urged passengers to “only travel if absolutely necessary”.

Rail workers are demanding better conditions and pay rises to tide over inflation and a guarantee of no job cuts.

The UK saw inflation touching a 41-year high of 11.1 per cent in October.

Meanwhile, the RMT union congratulated its 40,000 workers as the 48-hour strike concluded. They will resume another two-day nationwide strike from Friday.

The union has turned down a 9 per cent pay raise offered by Network Rail, Independent reported.

Hitting out at the government, the RMT union said of its latest strikes, “Despite every effort made by our negotiators, it is clear that the government is directly interfering with our attempts to reach a settlement”.

Winter of Discontent Why UK has been hit by a wave of strikes

The rail workers launching industrial action in the UK are demanding better conditions and pay rises. AP File Photo

“The union suspended previous strike action in good faith to allow for intensive negotiations to resolve the dispute. Yet Network Rail have failed to make an improved offer on jobs, pay and conditions for our members during the last two weeks of talks” the union said, as per Independent. 

Responding to the allegations, Network Rail’s chief negotiator Tim Shoveller said, “No one can deny the precarious financial hole in which the railway finds itself. Striking makes that hole bigger and the task of finding a resolution ever more difficult.

“We will not give up and hope that the RMT will return to the table with a more realistic appreciation of the situation.”

Industrial action by postal workers

Consumers have been warned of late deliveries of Christmas gifts amid a strike by postal workers.

The Communication Workers’ Union, which represents postal workers, is at loggerheads with Royal Mail over the wages of its members.

Royal Mail has alerted that the strikes would likely cause “some disruption”, but has assured that they would do what they can to “keep services running”, reported Independent.

Walkouts by other public sector workers

Many other public sector services such as ambulance workers, airport staff, Border Force agents, highway workers, Eurostar staff, civil servants, bus drivers, firefighters, charity workers, meteorologists and offshore workers have called for strikes in Britain, as per CNBC.

Border Force, which carries out passport checks at UK airports, has announced its staff will hold strikes over the busy travel days near Christmas and New Year’s Day, Quartz reported.

Driving examiners, who have also announced strikes, want a 10 per cent hike, along with better pensions and greater job security.

Workers at the UK’s busiest container port have accepted a pay deal after holding two walkouts earlier this year.

Members of the Unite union at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk had walked out in August and September after rejecting a pay deal before, as per BBC. 

In November, as many as 600 workers at Liverpool port had ended a strike after forging a pay deal with employer Peel Ports.

What is the UK govt saying

The UK recorded the highest number of working days lost due to labour strikes in October in more than a decade, Reuters reported citing Office for National Statistics data.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has said his government is working to lessen the impacts of these waves of strikes. He has told MPs that if “union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public”, reported Quartz.

As per Financial Times, he told Cabinet members earlier, “While the government will do all we can to minimise disruption, the only way we can stop it completely is by unions going back around the table and calling off these strikes,” he said.

The opposition parties have accused the Conservative leader of not deliberating with unions sincerely, or making many efforts to prevent strikes, CNN reported.

With inputs from agencies

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