Rarely would a brewery, a nonprofit housing organization and a pickle factory have much in common. But this week in Britain, workers at all three walked off the job in disputes about pay. They’re just the latest labor actions that have been gripping the country for months amid a deepening cost-of-living crisis.
Just under 200 employees at Greene King, the brewing company, are on strike after rejecting a pay offer. More than 600 workers at the housing and homeless charity Shelter have started a two-week strike, and about 50 employees at a Mizkan Euro factory that makes pickles and vinegar are walking out. Unite, the union that represents these workers, has warned that there could be beer and pickle shortages over the holidays.
But Britain is bracing for much worse. Workers in critical services, including nurses, ambulance staff and railroad employees, are set to go on strike, with walkouts expected across industries every day until Christmas.
The breadth of the labor action is the worst in Britain in nearly a decade, and poses another challenge to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government, which took office in October and is leading a country whose economy is already in a recession and isn’t expected to grow again until 2024.
Public service workers have taken to picket lines or voted to strike to demand higher wages as the country’s annual rate of inflation climbed above 11 percent in October, the highest in 40 years. Rising food prices and home energy bills are squeezing household budgets that were already been made vulnerable by years of low pay growth.
Demands for better pay from teachers and National Health Service workers are colliding with the government’s tight hand on the public purses. The Treasury recently announced large tax increases and future spending cuts as it sought to restore Britain’s fiscal credibility after Liz Truss’s stormy seven-week premiership.
Understand the Political Situation in Britain
- A Political Test: Rishi Sunak, who took over as prime minister with the hope of restoring stability to a government in turmoil, is facing formidable political and economic challenges.
- Selling Austerity: With an elite pedigree and a privileged lifestyle, Mr. Sunak must now persuade ordinary Britons that they should support his government through a painful ordeal of tax increases and spending cuts.
- A Haunting Presence: Saddled with budget and cost-of-living crises, the British prime minister also has to deal with the outsize personality of Boris Johnson, his predecessor.
Britain’s economic outlook is bleak. The Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent fiscal watchdog, forecast last month that living standards, as measured by disposable household income adjusted for inflation, would fall 7 percent over the next two fiscal years, the biggest drop in records going back to the 1950s.
Pay is central to these disputes — especially in the public sector, where the gap with private-sector pay is the largest it has ever been, outside of the height of the pandemic — but there are also fears that some public services are being hollowed out by underfunding and that drastic action needs to be taken to fix them and recruit more workers.
Ambulance staff across England and Wales will go on strike on Dec. 21, it was announced on Tuesday, and nurses are scheduled to walk off the job on Dec. 15 and Dec. 20 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s set to be the largest-ever strike by nursing staff, with the National Health Service already facing a huge backlog of cases for care. Meanwhile, ambulances are encountering “crippling delays” when trying to hand patients over at hospitals because of a shortage of available beds, due in part to a lack of home health aides in communities.
Over the next month, rail and Eurostar workers, bus drivers, Royal Mail postal staff, teachers in Scotland and even driving test examiners will also go on strike. For many of these workers, it’s the latest in a series of walkouts. Britain’s train network has been brought to a near standstill already several times this year. This week, the main rail union announced walkouts starting on Christmas Eve, in addition to two 48-hour strikes next week.
In September, 205,000 working days were lost to labor disputes, according to the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics. While the figures pale in comparison with the industrial actions of the 1970s and 1980s, they show a sharp increase in walkouts this year. The last time that Britain lost so much working time to strikes was in 2014, when coordinated action in the public sector protested pay freezes.
As Christmas approaches, the stakes seem to be getting higher. Nick Gibb, a government minister, said in a radio interview on Tuesday that unions shouldn’t hold the country “to ransom” and urged the rail union to call off Christmas strikes. But Mick Lynch, the head of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, defended the action. He told the BBC on Tuesday that the government was coordinating an attack on working people.
“It would be foolish of unions not to coordinate themselves in response to those attacks,” Mr. Lynch said.