On Wednesday 1 of February, an estimated 500,000 UK trades unionists took part in the biggest strike in more than a decade. Union members of schools, hospitals, the civil service, and transport networks took part in the strike with further similar actions planned to take place throughout February.
Among the strikers are 100,000 civil servants in 124 government departments who are striking over pay and conditions. Mark, a civil servant working for the DWP in Newcastle, told the BBC the decision to walk out was a “very hard” one to take, but the struggle of coping with spiraling food and heating costs while wages have stagnated had left him with no other option. The TUC estimates that the average UK worker is £200 worse off compared to a decade ago once inflation has been considered.
Minimum service bill
The strikes have been motivated by concerns about government plans to limit the right to strike with the introduction of legislation to enforce the maintaining of a minimum service level in sectors including railway and emergency services. The minimum service bill was passed by the House of Lords, 315 votes to 246, and will now be returned to the Commons for further scrutiny.
Deputy leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner said the bill had been rushed through parliament and if entered, the statute books would allow the government to threaten key workers with the sack on a “whim”.
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak told the Evening Standard the government had “steamrollered” the bill through parliament and said the right to strike was a “fundamental British liberty”.
TUC rally in North Staffordshire
In addition to the strikes, the TUC organised rallies to defend the right to strike at locations around the country, one of which was hosted by the North Staffordshire Trades Council at the CWU office in Stoke-on-Trent. Chair Jim Bradbury said the government’s proposed anti-strike legislation was “the thin end of the wedge” in a concerted assault on worker’s rights.
The meeting heard from speakers who praised the strikers who had come out on the 1 of February and in other ongoing disputes, including workers at the Amazon warehouse in Coventry who walked out last month. GMB Midlands Political Officer Cerys Way said Amazon were “one of the worst” companies she had encountered for the treatment of their staff, with CWU official Darren Glebloki agreeing with Way’s perspective, stating they were a “byword for everything an employer shouldn’t be”.
Martin Starkey of the FBU spoke about the government having “contempt” for public sector workers, compounding years of underinvestment with unsatisfactory pay offers and a refusal to intervene in disputes caused by their austerity policies.
The POA’s Jackie Marshall described the challenges faced by prison officers, who lost their right to strike in 1994 and the intimidation faced by union officials. She also spoke about the ways in which a lack of investment had put the lives of her members in danger.
The speakers stated the strikes were about more than just pay and conditions. Cerys Way called them a “push back” against underinvestment in public services and Justin Aston, a full time official for UNISON, said the government were trying to “undermine” the unions for “their own ends”. Martin Starkey said the anti-strike legislation was being pushed through because the government “are scared of workers standing together”.
Strikers were, as Glebloki states, acting to “defend the rights our forefathers won through their struggle”. Aston called for a “new deal” that protected the right of unions to “organise and protect the rights of their members”.
Public support for the strikes is, at present, firm. Just as firm, however, is the refusal of the government to negotiate or to address the underlying issues.
So long as that is the case, the strikes look set to be, as Glebloki puts, “just the beginning of working people standing together to protect their rights”, including the right to withdraw their labour.