Britain faces a hot month of industrial strikes and unrest ahead of Christmas, when nurses are likely to join postal workers, education workers and railway staff in a wave of strikes that will peak during the busiest weeks of office partying and festive shopping.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is expected to declare an unprecedented industrial strike after the deadline given to ministers has passed following a strike two weeks ago.
It is likely to be the first in a series of strikes over the winter and into the spring by NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance workers.
The expected move came as postal workers, university staff and Scottish school teachers went on strike on Thursday, while railway unions reaffirmed plans for eight days of national strikes despite a “positive” meeting with ministers.
Although unions said there were no plans for general strikes, many spoke of coordinating industrial action to maximize disruption and political influence. RMT chairwoman Mick Lynch called for a “wave of action” on behalf of lower-wage workers, a phrase echoed by TUC head Francis O’Grady, though she said synchronization was not always necessarily the most effective strategy.
After a meeting with Transport Secretary Mark Harper on Thursday, Lynch said the minister had “started a dialogue”, and “got off the belligerent bullshit” under his recent predecessor Grant Shapps. .
However, Lynch ruled out canceling eight days of strikes in December and January. He said: “If we abolish the strikes, we will never have a settlement… The members will not forgive me. I have made a commitment—until we have a tangible result, the work will continue.”
Harper described the meeting at the DOT as “constructive”, adding: “There is an agreement to be done, and I think we’ll get there – I want to make it easier for RMT and the employers to come to an agreement and end the dispute in the interest of the traveling public.”
Harper is due to meet Asif’s general secretary of the Train Drivers’ Union, Mick Whelan, next week, following another 24-hour strike by drivers on Saturday 26 November, which will stop services on lines across Britain.
On the other hand, the start of the latest wave of industrial strikes on Thursday saw picket lines outside schools, universities and mail sorting centres.
Up to 2.5 million students were expected to face disruption in what was described as the largest strike in the history of UK higher education.
About 70,000 members of the Union of Universities and Colleges (UCU), including lecturers, librarians and researchers, began a 48-hour strike on Thursday, with another one-day strike planned for next Wednesday, in a dispute over salaries, pensions and contracts.
“If university deputies don’t act seriously, our message is simple: This bout of strikes will only be the beginning,” said Joe Grady, UCLA general secretary.
University officials, janitors, security and restaurant staff at Unison are also taking industry action over wages at 19 universities.
In Scotland, schoolchildren stayed home as teachers across the country staged their first national strike over wages in nearly 40 years, after the latest payment offer was rejected as an “insult”.
A handful of primary schools in Orkney and Shetland opened as usual on Thursday, as thousands of members of the Education Institute of Scotland (EIS) took part in a one-day strike. Two more school strikes by other unions are scheduled for December.
Tens of thousands of Royal Mail’s Communications Workers union members also walked out on Thursday, in the first of 10 days of strikes before Christmas. The strikes are expected to affect deliveries from the peak Black Friday shopping day this week, with final action set to take place on Christmas Eve.
CWU General Secretary Dave Ward said from a picket line in London yesterday that Royal Mail does not pay overburdened workers and accused them of a “psychological attack”. The CWU rejected a 9% wage deal for 18 months, saying plans to change working conditions by Royal Mail would make it a “temporary working style” employer.
The economic impact of the strikes remains uncertain, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), whose growth figures previously estimated the damage from lockdowns such as the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in September.
“There is a lot of displacement because of the activity that happens either before or after the days when the strikes happen,” a spokesperson said. The Office for National Statistics only recently resumed collecting data on strikes after a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the four months from June to September, nearly three-quarters of a million days were lost through industrial strikes.
Despite being the highest numbers in over a decade, they are much lower than in the peak strike years of the 1970s and 1980s. A total of 29 million days were lost in the miners’ strike in 1979 – the year of the Winter of Discontent – and 27 million days were lost during the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-1954.