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Wave of government worker strikes sweeps UK

Teachers, nurses and firefighters are set to join a range of frontline public sector workers in increasingly coordinated strikes, as the labor force seeks to resist a record-breaking fall in British living standards.

(CN) — British teachers have become the latest public sector workforce to vote on a nationwide strike, in a wave of government worker protests that is gripping the country and grinding key public services to a halt.

The two unions balloting for action– the National Education Union and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers – together represent around 750,000 teaching staff. In an indicative poll of teachers taken last month, 87% of staff backed industrial action – the British term for worker protests – suggesting the proposed strikes are likely to be approved.

The vote follows last week’s historic decision by nurses to launch major strikes. Members of the Royal College of Nursing, which represents a large majority of nurses in the United Kingdom, voted overwhelmingly to walk out around the country – the first time they have done so in British history. As well as low pay, nurses are taking action to challenge persistent understaffing in the National Health Service, which they argue is resulting in a collapsing standard of care.

The decisions come amid deteriorating worker-employer relations throughout the U.K.’s public sector as inflation erodes wages. With inflation now exceeding 11% - the highest rate since 1982 – trade unions argue that any pay increase below this threshold is a stealth pay cut, at a time when their members are struggling to afford skyrocketing housing, food and energy costs.

Teachers and nurses are just the latest workforces to become embroiled in a standoff with the government over pay and conditions. Train drivers and rail staff represented by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers have been on strike since June, in what has now become the largest employment dispute in the country since 1989.

They were quickly joined on picket lines by postal workers, who have been organizing frequent rounds of national walkouts throughout summer and autumn that have led to severe delays in deliveries. Further planned strikes over the coming weeks threaten to wreak havoc during the busy Black Friday and Christmas periods.

Major action by university staff over pay, insecure contracts and changes to pensions continues to disrupt campuses around the country, whilst multiplying civil service strikes are grinding down the pace of government bureaucracy. Barristers, college educators, refuse workers, broadband engineers, bus drivers and staff at airports and ports are all also organizing regular walkouts around the country.

Firefighters are likely to approve nationwide strikes next month – only the second major industrial action taken by the emergency service since the 1970s – making them the latest workforce set to enter the growing dispute. Well over half a million days of work are estimated to have been lost to strikes already in 2022 – a number significantly above the U.K.’s pre-pandemic levels.

The scale of worker unrest is perhaps unsurprising in the context of the U.K.’s falling standards of living. On Thursday, the government’s long awaited fiscal statement was presented to Parliament by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. It was accompanied by a gloomy forecast from the Office of Budget Responsibility, which predicted a 7% fall in overall living standards over the next two years – the U.K’s biggest decline in recorded history.

However, the duration of the downturn could prove to be much longer. Alongside large tax rises, set to affect every U.K. household, Hunt announced significant backloaded public sector spending cuts, which are intended to come into force in the latter half of the decade. The decision to push back spending cuts means that even if U.K. living standards begin to improve in 2024, the country could simultaneously find itself entering into a new era of austerity measures.

It is this bleak economic outlook which trade unions are particularly determined to reject. The federation of British trade unions – the Trade Union Congress, or TUC – is increasingly taking a leadership role in the coordination of strikes, in order to generate maximum disruption and force the government to the negotiating table.

In a press statement released on Thursday, the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said, “We are all paying the price for the last decade of Tory governments, which decimated growth and living standards. Today’s statement shows it will be two decades until real wages recover. Millions of key workers across the public sector – who got us through the pandemic – face years of pay misery as departmental budgets are brutally squeezed.”

“The chancellor talked about everyone making sacrifices” she continued, “but the super-rich have once again been let off the hook – token tweaks to tax will do little to dent their bank balances.”

The TUC is calling for across-the-board pay to rise in line with inflation, as well as increases in welfare payments and the minimum wage.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has rejected the unions’ demands, stating last week, “I think most people will recognize that clearly that’s not affordable.” However, discussions between unions and government departments have intensified, particularly since nurses announced their decision to walk out.

The short-lived administration of Liz Truss had pledged to confront striking workers using legislation which would have created "minimum service requirements" that undermined the effectiveness of worker protests. However, the implosion of Truss’s premiership has left the government in a weaker position to take on trade unions, as ministers seek to restore economic stability and political credibility.

Sunak is yet to announce whether he will push on with the anti-strike laws, but has thus far sought to take a notably less confrontational approach relative to his immediate prime ministerial predecessors.

The last major piece of British union law, 2016’s Trade Union Act, sought to limit the right to strike by introducing high legal ballot thresholds required for strikes to be legitimate. The significance of the wave of industrial action now sweeping Britain is the unity and determination demonstrated by public sector workers, who are adopting the slogan "enough is enough" for their growing movement. It is this strength of feeling that has ensured the legal ballot thresholds are no obstacle to nationwide strikes.

Whether the government responds to the disputes with pay offers or strike-restricting laws looks set to determine just how severe the U.K’s winter of worker unrest becomes.

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