Being a supply teaching assistant in the UK means I was inevitably granted a free Wednesday as most schools either fully or partially closed due to the unions’ ongoing industrial action against poor pay rates and working conditions. Unfamiliar with striking, I find it fascinating how strikes have become commonplace across the United Kingdom, especially during economic fluctuation and living crises.
The current strike has been going on since the first of February, fuelled by the record high inflation rate and energy crisis in opposition to the inadequate rise in annual pay for public sector workers. While the government, led by the Conservative Party’s leader Rishi Sunak, kept affirming that the union was being too stubborn by continually refusing the Department of Education’s offers, TUC (Trades Union Congress) blamed the government for having no goodwill towards solving the dispute and consequentially delaying the progress of the negotiation between two parties.
The everlasting strike streak, with hundreds of thousands of workdays lost to this moment and maybe more in the future, is concrete proof of how the current conflict between the union and the UK government is far from reaching a comprehensive solution. A full schedule of industrial action has been planned until at least the first of April, with hundreds of thousands of staff walking out in each sector. Besides affecting the staff, as they won’t be paid for these strike days, the industrial action inevitably disrupts the public’s daily life activities, especially for the most vulnerable groups like pupils and patients.
Though schools are advised to try their best to stay open, especially for SEN pupils and Year 11 heading toward their GCSE exams, it is difficult not to close, at least partially, due to the severe lack of staff. As pupils have to stay home, not only does this cause them another disadvantage after two years of disruption due to the global pandemic, but many parents also have to take unpaid leave to look after their children. The crisis regarding neglected emergency cases across the UK has also attracted a lot of attention in the media, with many people reporting that they couldn’t call an ambulance, had to wait for hours for one to arrive, or had their operations constantly postponed to a dangerously later date.
It seems like to the UK government and the head of unions; such disruptions so conveniently become the buck both are trying to pass. Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, expressed her disappointment with the education union’s refusal of the department's offer to suspend strike actions, claiming that to continue striking is “simply unforgivable.” On the other hand, the head of unions and their supporters are confident that the public is on their side, and the problem stems from the big guys that have been neglecting the public workers’ standard of living.
If we learn something from the history of strikes in the UK, we’ll know that the public’s reactions play an essential role in the success or failure of the industrial action. In the 1970s, miners constantly went on strike, causing coal miners to shut down and forcing the government to declare a national emergency where a three-day week initiative went in place to conserve electricity. Despite an immense disruption in everyday daily life, the public showed a great deal of sympathy and support for the miners as unemployment and inflation were both on the rise at the time. The industrial action eventually gained the miners an annual pay rise of 27%, which was way over their target.
Such a success, though very short-termed, contradicts the Winter of Discontent in 1978-1979, when widespread strikes were across multiple unions. Suffering from tons of garbage piled up on the street, a fuel shortage during one of the coldest winters, and the horrific scene of unburied bodies all caused by constant striking, the public was soon fed up with the situation and abandoned the trade unions’ side, allowing Margaret Thatcher and her hard-heartened’s government to rise and impose strict restrictions on the power of the blocks.
As many compare the current winter with that Winter of Discontent, it’s worth considering the public’s opinion. The strikers’ attempts backfired forty years ago, ringing a warning bell for the present workers and the unions. With the Brits frustrated with a string of unfortunate events from the pandemic, Brexit, the constant resignation of PMs, economic recession, to the energy crisis as the result of Russia’s payback sanction, they might perceive not only the government but also people that are making their lives worse as threats. As schools close, the mailing is disrupted, trains are canceled, and emergency cases are inadequately responded to, many British people are losing their patience just like they eventually did before Thatcher was elected. Keeping the industrial action going while dealing with the public’s needs to maintain their support will be an urgent problem for the union leaders, especially when they are close to holding a second general strike since 1926. And, just as a reminder, that first and only general strike in UK history ended with sympathetic strikes made illegal with no changes to workers’ working conditions.
Apart from the public’s sympathy, history also teaches us that the government’s power is no less critical to the final result of industrial actions. In March 1985, with no money left and families to care for, miners bitterly returned to work after one year of striking in desperation, facing Thatcher’s firm policies, the police, and the unaffected public due to the government’s well-prepared plan to store coal. The event eventually led to the crumbling of the UK’s deep mining industry, with the coal pits gradually being closed down to the last one in 2015.
The current situation with the government may seem a bit different, with the constant resignation of prime ministers, the scandals surrounding number 10 Downing Street, and the Conservative party rapidly losing support despite Rishi Sunik’s initial steps. Nonetheless, the Conservative government has been standing itsground against the union without any intention to yield, which may force the strike to last longer than expected and put strikers to blame for the tremendous effect on the public. If they ever lose their government to the Labour party, there’s also no firm promise of a positive change; remember that James Callaghan lost his battle against the strike in his term, and the 27% pay rise granted by the Labour party during the 1970s only led to an even higher inflation rate.
Strikes are a powerful tool as they brought us many achievements, from equal pay to 40-hour working weeks, but they only work when used with the right conditions. History is a chilling reminder that the current government and the unions must take their decisions seriously, as any decision could make or break either or both sides.
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