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Employment

Will there be a general strike?

Railway workers and Royal Mail workers will be going on strike on October 1 in what could be the biggest day of industrial action in over a decade.

Multiple unions are balloting their members for strike action after the government’s public sector pay award failed to come close to their demands, while over 100,000 transport and Royal Mail workers have announced they will be going on strike on October 1.

Disputes between workers and their employers in the UK are at their highest rate in five years as inflation hits pay packets across many sectors.

The cost of living is rising. Three in four are Brits worried about the increased cost of food, while one in six now rely on food banks to get by. As the value of wages drops, many Brits are demanding a pay rise in an attempt to counteract the biggest drop in living standards on record.

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Unions are at the forefront of making these demands heard and co-ordinated action called by multiple unions could form a general strike. Here’s what you need to know about the extent of the disruption Britain could be facing this summer.

What is the difference between a national strike and a general strike?

The terms national strike and general strike are generally used interchangeably but there is a difference.

“A general strike involves numerous unions across industries whereas a national strike could be used to describe a strike within one sector taking place nationally,” political activism researcher Taj Ali told The Big Issue. 

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When it comes to a national strike, it might help to think of the difference between a local bus strike, in which bus drivers at one local company demand a pay rise, as opposed to a national bus strike, which could involve bus drivers across the country. 

While there may be multiple strikes organised by different unions taking place at the same time, this won’t necessarily constitute a general strike. A general strike is generally understood to be politically motivated, where the majority of those involved are united in a shared vision for change.

Why are some unions calling for strike action?

Inflation hit double digits in July, then eased slightly to 9.9 per cent in August. by the Office for National Statistics, meaning prices are rising at the fastest rate in 40 years.

Despite this, economists have warned overall, inflation is likely to continue to get worse, with leading bank Citibank predicting it could hit 18 per cent early next year.

Yet for many workers, their pay hasn’t risen to match. The government recently announced its pay award to public sector workers in England and Wales, but none of the pay rises meet inflation, and so amount to a real terms pay cut. 

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Basic pay for newly qualified nurses will increase by 5.5 per cent, but most nurses will receive a rise of around 3.7 per cent. This is up from the government’s previous offer of a 3 per cent raise, but far much below the 5 per cent above inflation the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is asking for. 

Union the RMT held three days of strike action in June, and further walkouts in July. It says its members who work for Network Rail haven’t been given a pay rise for three years. It also claims Network Rail is threatening to impose compulsory redundancies and “unsafe” cuts to maintenance works.

October 1 could see the biggest national strike in recent history. What’s going on?

Transport unions the RMT, Aslef and TSSA have announced that their members will be going on strike on October 1, with the intention of bringing the rail network to an “effective standstill”. 

The striking railway workers will be joining 115,000 postal workers at the CWU to make what is thought to be the biggest strike in recent years. 

On the same day, Enough is Enough – a newly launched national campaign to fight the cost of living crisis, will be holding protest rallies in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham, Hull, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Norwich and Bristol.

The campaign was formed by leading public figures and organisations including trade unionist Mick Lynch and Labour MP Zarah Sultana. They are demanding a “significant rise in the national minimum wage and a path to £15 an hour, a real public sector pay rise, and an inflation busting-rise in pensions and benefits”. They also want the same increase in pensions and benefits to ensure those who need support aren’t left behind.

“People often say to us why don’t you take strike action that affects the politicians rather than ordinary people. This is the day people should be travelling to the Tory party conference… We will try to bring some pressure to bear on the people who make the decisions,” said Eddie Dempsey, RMT’s assistant general secretary on TalkTV. 

The Conservative party conference will take place in Birmingham from Sunday October 2 to October 5.

“We’ve got a political class in this country that thinks the way forward is to cut taxes for the rich, allow bankers bonuses to come back sky high, and at the same time ordinary working people who kept the company moving that kept the country moving during the pandemic, the health emergency, they’ve got to bear the brunt. That can’t be right,” Dempsey continued. 

“This is an expression of something that goes deeper than the RMT. This is an expression of working class people in this country who have had the mickey taken out of them for far too long. And I think you’re starting to see a groundswell of support for a change in political direction.”

Who is calling for a national strike?

Transport unions RMT, the TSSA and Aslef have called multiple strikes this summer, with workers at National Rail, ScotRail, Transport for London and Heathrow Airport all set to walk out. Strikes will continue to hit Network rail and other transport operators in-to late August, unless a pay deal is reached, in what will be the biggest dispute since 1989.

General secretary of the RMT Mick Lynch has said that he would support a general strike if Tory leadership contender Liz Truss becomes prime minister and brings in anti-union legislation, the i has reported.

Education unions NASUWT and National Education Union (NEU) said the increase of 5 per cent for more experienced teachers is too low, and will be balloting members for strike action in response. 

The RCN has announced that it too will be balloting nurses in response to the “low pay award” that signifies how the government is “misjudging the mood of nursing staff and the public too.”

General secretary Pat Cullen said: “There are tens of thousands of unfilled nursing jobs and today ministers have taken the NHS even further from safe patient care. Living costs are rising and yet they have enforced another real-terms pay cut on nursing staff. It will push more nurses and nursing support workers out of the profession.

“Our members will vote and tell us what they want to do next. We are grateful for the growing public support, including over strike action.”Public-sector union Unison, which has 1.3 million members working in local authorities including the NHS, education, gas and electricity, and police, has told its branches to get “strike ready”. 

The union’s general-secretary Christina McAnea, told BBC Newsnight that “No trade union leader goes for strike action as their first resort”, but she would be willing to tell Unison’s members to strike if their demands for pay rises are not taken seriously. 

Legislation introduced in the 1980s bans “sympathy strikes” which take place when a union instructs its members to go on strike in support of another union and its causes. However this legislation would not stop separate unions co-ordinating the timing of their strikes to form a national strike.

When was the last general strike in the UK?

It’s been almost a century since the UK last saw a general strike. The TUC called a general strike in May 1926 in defence of 1.2 million miners. 

The UK almost saw a national strike in 2011 when millions of public sector workers went on strike in 2011 in response to changes in pensions for public sector workers. The industrial action forced two-thirds of state schools to close and thousands of hospital operations to be postponed, and rallies were held across the UK. 

Unions claimed that up to two million people refused to go to work. The strikes were largely confined to those working in the public sector, but have been described as a “public sector general strike”.

What caused the 1926 General Strike?

Owners of some of Britain’s biggest mines demanded that their employees work longer hours for less money. The miners contested this, which led to them being locked out of the mines in which they worked. After two days of stalemate, the TUC called a national strike.

The goal of the strike was to force the government to prevent mine owners from reducing miners’ wages by 13 per cent and increasing their shifts from seven to eight hours a day.

Up to 1.7 million people working in transport, heavy industry, printing, fuel and dock workers refused to go to work on the first day of the national strike, in solidarity with the miners. 

After nine days, and as a growing number of largely middle class people volunteered to take on the roles of the strikers, the strike was called off. Six months later, most of the miners were back down the mines, working longer hours for less money, or were unemployed. 

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What was the winter of discontent in 1976?

During the winter of 1978–79, strikes erupted across the UK as workers rejected the wage limits imposed on public and private sector industries by the Labour government.

The government justified the wage limits as necessary to curb rising inflation, however the unions saw the policy as a betrayal and “effectively abandoned their policy of voluntary wage restraint”, says historian Keith Laybourn

Ford car workers were the first to take industrial action. They put in a pay request for a rise of 25 per cent on their annual pay, but were offered just five per cent. In response, they went on strike for around nine weeks, when an agreement of a 16.5 per cent wage increase was reached. 

Strikes were also undertaken by people working on the railways, by haulage drivers, petrol tank drivers, and most notoriously, grave diggers who refused to bury the dead. 

The winter of 1976 saw abnormally low temperatures, and coupled with difficulties in getting fuel, saw many families experience severe hardship due to the cold.

The winter of discontent was made up of rolling national strikes, but isn’t considered a general strike because it lacked national coordination for political ends. 

What has the government done in response to the threat of a national strike?

The government recently pushed through plans to allow ​companies to bring in agency workers to replace striking workers, something that had been banned under the trade union legislation. 

Transport secretary Grant Shapps claimed the reforms are “vital to ensure any future strikes will cause even less disruption and allow adaptable, flexible, fully skilled staff to continue working throughout.”

Unions have branded the plans an attack on the right to strike and raised concerns over the safety of bringing in temporary staff to work roles that require high levels of skills and experience. 

“The right to strike is a fundamental British liberty. The government is attacking it in broad daylight by allowing agency workers to be used as strikebreakers across the economy,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

“Hiring agency workers to try to break strikes would put these workers in an appalling position, worsen disputes and poison industrial relations.

“And public safety could be put at risk by bringing in agency staff who haven’t been fully trained to deliver specific roles.” 

Led by the TUC, 11 trade unions have launched a legal challenge against the government’s new regulations. They argue that the law change violates fundamental trade union rights protected by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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