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Rail, nurses, postal, border control: What’s the deal with the UK’s current strike action?

If you’re living in the UK right now, you’ll most certainly have seen the masses of news coverage dissecting and analysing the country-wide strikes which have been taking place throughout December 2022. Spanning across a number of public sector industries, the broadcasting in regard to the strike action has been extensive and, at times, overwhelming.

Here’s a full breakdown of all the upcoming strikes and stresses that led to them. A word of advice—buckle in, because we’ve witnessed a decade of underfunding and lack of understanding. It’s time for things to change.

Why are there railwork strikes?

Railway strikes have existed in the UK since the dawn of the industrial revolution and they’ve been labourers’ most valuable arsenal when it comes to demanding better working conditions and fairer pay. Over the past few years, tensions have grown exponentially between rail workers and the Tory government—primarily due to the minister’s reluctance, and often downright refusal to facilitate negotiations and pursue resolutions.

Enter Mick Lynch, aka the rail network’s equivalent to Jason Statham. Bald, bold, and assertive, Lynch—who is the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)—has dominated news coverage with his calm assurance and stoic stature. In summary, the strikes are occurring as a part of a continual labour movement disputing the government in relation to pay, job cuts, and changes to terms and conditions. Most importantly, the unions are emphasising the fact that their pay should reflect the mounting pressures of the cost of living crisis.

Coverage of the strikes has been varied and Lynch recently stated that the BBC had been purporting false claims surrounding public support. During a heated interview with BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the general secretary rebutted the questions posed to him regarding how much pay workers had lost through strike action, instead saying: “Why are you pursuing an editorial line I could read in The Sun or The Daily Mail or any of the right-wing press in this country, and you’re not pursuing the fact that working people—millions of them—are being impoverished and some of them being made destitute by the attitude of this government and by their employers?”

Two of the rail strikes have already occurred, having taken place on 13 and 15 December. The next series of strikes will happen on 16, 17, 24, 25, 26, and 27 December and 3, 4, 6, and 7 January 2023. During this time, over 40,000 network rail workers are set to walk out.

Britain’s workers have reached their limits, and what’s clear is that the extensive growth in action runs directly in correlation with the breakdown and collapse of trust and confidence in the conservative government. Rishi Sunak has done little to reassure both the workforce and the general public as they toil through one of the most catastrophic energy crises the UK has ever faced.

Strikes which clash with valuable public holidays are often met with public criticism, and recent YouGov polls have depicted that 47 per cent of the British population oppose the current action. However, there is an equally important 41 per cent of people who support the strikes.

Why are the nurses striking?

Potentially the most controversial public strike currently taking place is the nurses’ action. Today, Thursday 15 December, tens of thousands of nurses across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland staged a mass walkout. Similarly to the rail strikes, the nurses’ labour action symbolises the utter fragility of the public sector, and the government’s outright refusal to provide genuine financial compensation—choosing instead to publicise empty words of affection for the National Health Service (NHS).

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) balloted its members over industrial action in a dispute over pay, arguing that low pay is driving chronic understaffing which directly puts patients at risk and leaves nursing staff overworked, underpaid, and undervalued, as reported by The Guardian.

According to Sky News, RCN chief executive Pat Cullen accused Health Secretary Steve Barclay of “belligerence” after he reportedly dismissed negotiations on the issue of pay despite the government having already accepted recommendations made by the NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) to give below inflation pay rises of around 4 per cent.

Critical care including chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal, and paediatric intensive care are all going to stay staffed. Care will also remain available when it comes to accident and emergency (A&E) services.

While the rail strikes have become commonplace, nurses are often regarded as the backbone of the British healthcare system—a constant that remains steadfast despite mounting challenges. However, the combination of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, soaring inflation, and a damaged system has finally broken the back of a sea of workers whose vital public role is often taken for granted. It is a decade of underfunding that has ultimately caused this strike action.

A further walkout is due to take place on 20 December.

Why are the postal workers striking?

The dark horse of this season’s strikes may be the postal action. As an often-overlooked sector, Royal Mail workers are also striking due to a breakdown in disputes over pay and working conditions.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) have stated: “Posties are in the fight of their lives against the Uberisation of Royal Mail and the destruction of their conditions. But 115,000 of our members will not just accept this war on their livelihoods and their industry.”

The postal strikes are quite extensive, some of the events have already taken place but there is further action planned for 15, 23, and 24 December. So, if you’ve been putting off your Christmas shopping—now would be the ideal time to get your cart rolling.

Why are the border control officials striking?

As an even darker horse, the Public and Commercial Service (PCS) union has announced Civil Service industrial action that will impact Border Force services. According to The Independent, In a dispute over pay, jobs, and conditions, the people who normally check passports and assess arriving travellers have staged walk outs at the three biggest airports: London Heathrow, London Gatwick, and Manchester. There will also be sporadic strikes across other UK airports.

Anyone who is travelling into the UK this Christmas period should be aware of the extreme disruptions they could face. Action is due to take place from 23 December all the way to New Year’s Eve, excluding 27 December. While some military personnel and volunteers have been given emergency training in order to alleviate the interference, it’s likely to still be a total mess.

Recent data has shown that, not only is inflation at an all-time high at 11 per cent, but when average weekly earnings are adjusted for inflation, total pay in the public sector is around 5 per cent lower than the current 11.1 per cent rate. This works out to a total take-home salary of £597, versus the equivalent of £626 per week back in 2010.

While this mass wave of strikes will undoubtedly impact the general public more so than similar actions of the past, it’s important to recognise the primary cause behind labour unrest. There’s a reason why nurses are striking for the very first time in the UK. Industrial action is always a last resort, spurred on due to a lack of government support.

Can Rishi Sunak unite the UK or will we finally get the general election we deserved all along?

So, there you have it. Rishi Sunak is the third Prime Minister in 2022. The third since September 2022, in fact. He becomes the first non-white PM in the history of the United Kingdom, as well as the richest ever, with Sunak and his wife’s combined net worth listed as £730 million. Personally, I’m suspicious of anyone that rich—why not just retire to a life of luxury?

Earlier this year—what feels like a lifetime ago—Sunak lost to Liz Truss during the previous Tory leadership contest, gaining the support of more MPs but only 42.6 per cent of the members’ votes. Now, he’s secured the top job after Truss’ economic plan proved irredeemably disastrous. If Sunak had simply won the first time round, perhaps we’d have avoided six weeks of uncertainty and chaos, and still be in roughly the same position as we are now. It feels a bit like a fever dream already.

Second time around, he secured the gig by default: Penny Mordaunt, incumbent Leader of the House of Commons who also ran in July, dropped out on Monday 24 October. Whether or not Sunak has a democratic mandate to run the country is debatable, given that we have a parliamentary democracy and the Conservatives were elected with a large majority in 2019. But Truss reneged on various manifesto promises and, based on previous campaign promises, Sunak might do the same. Although it’s too soon to tell, if history repeats itself—which it often does—we’re surely in for a tumultuous ride.

Boris Johnson—the disgraced former PM who flew back from the Caribbean to court his fellow MPs—announced on Sunday 23 October that he would not formally be joining the race, despite allegedly having secured the necessary support. It should be noted that he never once proved this fact. Two nonconsecutive terms as Prime Minister would be unusual but isn’t unprecedented. In fact, Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, did just that—first during World War II and again in the early 1950s.

However, Johnson is still facing an investigation from the Privileges Committee as to whether or not he intentionally misled the parliament over Partygate. If found to have done so, he may be required to stand down as an MP. Had he joined the race and won—he’s significantly more popular among Tory party members than either Truss or Sunak—he may have been out again before Christmas. I was quietly hoping this would be how things panned out: it would be an utter disaster for the Tories and they would have no choice but to call a general election. Sadly, no such luck.

Sunak gave a wooden speech soon after winning the job. “There is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” he said. “We now need stability and unity. And I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together. Because that is the only way we will overcome the challenges we face and build a better, more prosperous future for our children and our grandchildren.” What does this mean exactly? Who knows. At this stage, it feels like party leader Mad Libs.

It would be nice to know how he plans to bring both his party and the country together, during a  period of turmoil that threatens the long-term stability of both.

The Prime Minister concluded: “I pledge that I will serve you with integrity and humility, and I will work day in, day out, to deliver for the British people.” Given that Sunak was also implicated in Partygate, which helped to bring Johnson down, his integrity is questionable. His eventual resignation signaled the beginning of the end for Johnson’s premiership and many Johnson loyalists still don’t trust him—so how this plays out could be interesting, to say the least.

Sunak’s first appointments were thoroughly disappointing. Suella Braverman returns as Home Secretary less than a week after resigning the post for breaking ministerial code—so much for “integrity.” James Cleverly remains as Foreign Secretary and Michael Gove is back in the cabinet, after being fired by Johnson a few months ago. The only silver lining is that, after a couple of years in genuinely important positions, Jacob Rees Mogg is no longer in cabinet and returns to the back benches where, hopefully, his influence will be limited.

So, will Sunak last? It’s impossible to know. His fiscal policy is likely to be harsh, but less experimental than his predecessor’s. The parliamentary Tory party needs to present a united front. If they cannot get behind the new PM, a general election is a necessity. The majority party should be able to pass the government’s legislation.

Lately, many Tory MPs have been divisively ideological rather than pragmatic, but the threat of an electoral wipeout might mean that they begin to compromise. Current polling puts the party at an all-time low in terms of electoral popularity—some models give them less than twenty seats were a general election to be held today, with Labour taking an unprecedented super majority and the Scottish National Party (SNP) sitting as opposition.

The next important event is Monday 31 October’s fiscal statement from Jeremy Hunt, assuming he isn’t suddenly removed as Chancellor. This will lay out what’s to come over the winter, in terms of spending cuts and support for the vulnerable—as well as what to expect from Sunak’s premiership in general.