Strikes in UK at highest in five years as pay is hit by inflation

Strikes in UK at highest in five years as pay is hit by inflation

World News

Unionised workers are increasingly prepared to challenge inadequate pay offers and take strike action to ensure wages keep up with the sharply rising cost of living, amid signs that workplace militancy is growing in parts of the economy.

Some of the UK’s biggest unions are battling scores of firms at the same time, with the number of industrial disputes well above pre-pandemic levels. GMB members entered into dispute with 42 employers between October 2021 and March 2022 – seven times the number of disputes in the same period in 2019-20. Unite members are currently involved in 30 disputes in England – almost four times the reported number involving the union three years ago.

Over the past 12 months, the Trades Union Congress has logged at least 300 disputes in different industries, indicating that more and more workers are challenging below-inflation pay offers after a decade of wage stagnation following the 2008 banking crash.

Organised workers in some sectors are racking up sizeable wins, despite inflation shrinking pay packets overall. The GMB recorded six such victories over the past five months, including outsourced bin workers in Eastbourne and Hastings securing 19%-plus rises. Unite has secured 35 wins in recent months, including warehouse workers at B&Q’s national distribution centre in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, operated by the logistics firm Wincanton, who gained a near-11% pay boost after taking strike action.

There is a growing willingness to threaten or use strikes to force companies to match soaring price inflation, which the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated last week would cause the fastest fall in living standards since modern records began in the 1950s.

Workers in Unite are currently involved in eight strikes, including a bitter dispute between refuse drivers and Labour-controlled Coventry council, which could lead to Unite cutting funding for the Labour party. The GMB is organising 10 strikes and holding two ballots. Workers at the Fox’s Glacier Mints factory in York walked out last week over a below-inflation pay offer while staff at the pharmaceutical firm GSK and gas company Cadent are balloting for strikes.

The TUC said there was more industrial conflict than at any time over the past five years. “Workers are on the front foot and taking employers on,” said Kevin Rowan, the TUC’s head of organisation.

Refuse collection drivers are striking in Coventry
Refuse collection drivers are striking in Coventry. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

Even though the most recent ONS briefing suggests days lost to strikes remain low in historic terms, there has been an upturn in disputes not captured by the official data, which only covers strikes and lags at least a year behind. “By any measure, we are seeing a significant rise in disputes – albeit from a low base,” said Rowan.

These disputes are often localised as employment laws have made it harder to take national industrial action. Unison recently failed to meet the new 50% turnout threshold in a strike ballot of council workers.

But it is far from impossible: thousands of university staff have 15 days of strikes this year in a row over pension cuts as well as real-term pay cuts and precarious contracts. There is also the prospect of a national dispute over the railways, where large-scale redundancies are looming.

The governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, has called for restraint in wage increases to help prevent an inflationary spiral. But Rowan said improved pay awards were not pushing up inflation. “Energy and food costs are the real drivers of inflation rather than wages,” he said. “Wages have been held back for a very long time and lots of people are really struggling. Workers should not be paying the price for economic factors out of their control.”

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