Strikes Sweep the U.K. as Workers Demand Better Pay

For eight days at the end of August, the port of Felixstowe – often a constant source of movement as Britain’s busiest container terminal – was virtually inactive, with very little cargo coming in and out. For the first time in more than three decades, the country’s workers went on strike.

The walkout escalated the workers’ eight-month wage dispute with the port and CK Hutchison, its Hong Kong-based parent company. But that is just one of dozens of strikes that have hit Britain this summer, and are likely to happen in the coming months.

The need for higher wages amid soaring inflation – at 10.1%, the highest rate in 40 years – and an upcoming 80% increase in energy bills has led to Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are out of worksuspend training, garbage collection and port transportation services around the country.

The employment action is not unusual in the UK, but the country has not seen an explosion of industrial action, in so many walks of life, in decades. It happened in a political vacuum, because the government, led by the Conservative Party, hold a contest to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister.

“What a shame for you! Shame on you! Shame on you! ‘ shouted the workers gathered on a traffic roundabout opposite the entrance to the giant port. They are led by Sharon Graham, the head of Unite, one of the largest unions in the country, with more than a million members. She traveled around the country, participating in negotiations and visiting networks.

At Felixstowe, the union and its members are looking to raise wages by 10 percent, a jump that seemed high at the start of the year when it was first proposed. But by the end of the year, when the Bank of England forecasts inflation to hit 13%, that demand will represent a cut in purchasing power.

Strikers claim the company’s millions of pounds in profits last year shows that it can afford to raise wages for workers who feel undervalued after working through the pandemic.

“What we are asking for is a very small percentage of that profit,” said Phil Pemberton, who has been union leader at the port for the past 14 years. As the workers who helped generate that profit, “we are looking for a pay rise that we believe we deserve,” he added.

There is little sign of an impending escalation. Rail workers across the country, as well as bus drivers, switchboard workers and criminal defense lawyers in England and Wales, are among those who have gone on strike in recent months over concerns new about inflated prices and lingering complaints about wages and management. They are about to be joined by dock workers in Liverpool and staff at nurseries and primary schools in Glasgow.

This growing unrest, along with a recession is possible, will welcome the next prime minister, scheduled to be announced on Monday; the expected choice is Current Foreign Minister, Liz Truss.

In response to the strike, Hutchison Ports, a unit of CK Hutchison, said it offers well-paying secure jobs and insisted it was offering a raise close to union requirements. The company has also accused Unite of “promoting a national agenda” that makes its workers worse off. Logistics UK, a trade group, said disruptions from the strike were minimal, as companies can move supplies in advance and Felixstowe tends not to be used for “just-in-time” supply chains. .

After decades of decline, union membership has increased in four of the last five years in the UK. However, less than a quarter of employees are union members. (In the United States, the market share is 10 percent.)

Decades ago, when large swaths of the economy such as railroads, mining and telecommunications were publicly owned, unions mainly negotiated with the government of the day. But since many major British industries have been privatized, the battle is now between corporations and their shareholders.

Faced with complex ownership structures around the globe, Unite hired economists and forensic accountants to review companies’ accounts and used the information not only to pressure owners. company but also to warn investors and corporate partners about what the union considers to be bad labor practices. Since Ms. Graham was elected Unite general secretary about a year ago, the union has won an additional £150 million ($174 million) for members, succeeding in 80% of the 450 disputes. .

“I just want to level the playing field between the David-and-Goliath kind of situation here,” Ms. Graham said.

Sian Moore, a professor of employment relations and human resource management at the University of Greenwich, says this focus on profits and inequality has resonated with the general public. “They hit the nerve with everyone.”

The Railway strike this summer – the biggest in three decades – has brought much of Britain to a standstill, which could spark fury across the country. Instead became an overnight celebrity by Mick Lynchhead of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, as clips of his spirited TV interviews went viral on social media.

Last Friday, about 115,000 postal workers were laid off and mail deliveries were cancelled. For 500 years, mail was part of the state, but Royal Mail Group is now fully privatized and its largest shareholder is a Czech billionaire. Earlier in the year, Royal Mail Group raised wages by 2 per cent, but union members said they wanted a raise to match the cost of living without sacrificing other benefits.

Given the company’s reported profit (last year was £370m), “it’s frustrating when they come back and say they don’t have the money,” said Hannah Carroll, a 29-year-old postal worker. in East London, who said she worked throughout the pandemic confinement as the sole earner in her family.

On a select line in London, where staff were hoisting bright pink flags of the Communications Workers Union, many pointed to £400m being returned to shareholders by the Royal Mail. in the fiscal year to March and opposed the company’s insistence that it could not pay significantly more. The company said the pandemic had hit its business and amid greater competition it lost £1m a day in the first quarter; It also notes that Royal Mail employees make up many of its shareholders.

With so many vital public services disrupted, bleak comparisons have been drawn to the late 1970s and Britain’s notorious Winter of Discontent. More than a million workers in 1979 went on strike to protest the government’s attempt to impose a wage ceiling on the public sector in an attempt to control soaring inflation. Garbage piled up, schools closed, hospitals turned away emergency patientsome of the dead were not buried, and the crisis eventually forced Labor lawmakers to leave and usher in a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.

Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communications Workers Union, believes today’s unrest will last longer than a wave of strikes over the summer. “This also signals a complete break with the traditional ways in which companies are run,” he said. “And it has the potential to fill a void that exists politically.”

Many of the issues at the heart of these strikes, such as privatization of public services and weak wage growth, persist in the long run. But the impetus for action may be the pandemic shutdown, which has awakened many to greater inequalities at work and outside of work and encouraged some to demand more from employers when it comes to work. they struggled with the highest inflation rates in decades.

Next week, criminal defense attorneys who appear in court alongside legal aid users will begin an indefinite strike, bringing thousands of court hearings to a halt. The lawyers, members of the Criminal Lawyers Association, are trying to force the government to increase their fees to prevent the expulsion of lawyers from legal aid.

Problems beyond affordability. Amos Waldman, a criminal defense lawyer in Manchester who practices other areas of law to support his family, said the criminal court’s backlog of 59,000 cases, a symptom of a “collapsed” system to pour”. including a 1-year-old daughter.

“It’s not just the financial impact on us – although there’s a big financial impact – it’s all about justice,” he said. “Justice is delayed or denied.”

The Justice Department has called the strike “irresponsible.” However, the matter will be on the radar of the next justice minister, and other ministers will face similar challenges. A major civil servants union is preparing a vote for a nationwide strike in September, and similar votes are underway or are being prepared for many National Health Service workers. teachers’ unions and families.

Professor Moore said there was a possibility of coordinated action among the different unions in the coming months. “There could be a crisis.”

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