Working days lost due to strike action reaches highest level in decade

Mick Lynch argues with BBC host over reporting on strikes

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Thousands of workers are planning to participate in industrial action this Christmas – from postal workers and border control officers, to bus drivers and nurses – as the country braces for another “Winter of Discontent”. With soaring inflation wiping out the value of people’s paychecks, in October the UK recorded the most working days lost due to labour disputes in 11 years. The Government has so far refused to budge on public sector pay rises in line with inflation, saying that to do so would adversely affect the already spiralling cost of living crisis.

On Tuesday, more than 40,000 rail workers began their latest round of walkouts over pay and conditions, with further strikes are planned on Friday and Saturday.

Royal Mail members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) will strike on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as on December 23 and Christmas Eve.

For the first time in history, the Royal College of Nursing has voted in favour of a nationwide walkout on Thursday, with its General Secretary Pat Cullen labelling it a “once in a generation chance to improve your pay and combat staff shortages” when the ballot was held last month.

Border Force, passport control and visa staff are also planning eight days of strikes in the run-up to the New Year across many of the UK’s major airports. The Government has put more than 600 military personnel on standby as a result.

The significant disruption forecast over the coming weeks is merely a continuation of the trend ongoing for many months now. 

According to data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Tuesday there were 417,000 working days lost due to strikes in October of this year.

The Government’s statistical agency defines working days lost as the number of days in a basic working week not worked due to participation in a labour dispute.

October’s figure is the highest monthly total since November 2011, when pension reforms brought forward by David Cameron’s Conservative Government saw over 60 percent of the country’s state schools close due to teacher strikes. 

Since June – when the ONS resumed collecting labour market data after the pandemic – 1.2 million working days have been lost due to walkouts, the worst five-month total in over 30 years.

The unions estimate over a million working days are set to be lost in December, promising more disruption than during any other month since July 1989.

Although many private sector disputes have been resolved, the Government has maintained that public sector pay rises would be detrimental to the primary goal of reigning in inflation.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said: “Any action that risks embedding high prices into our economy will only prolong the pain for everyone, and stunt any prospect of long-term economic growth.”

In October, the UK inflation rate hit 11.1 percent, increasing by a full percentage point to hit its highest rate since October 1981, 41 years ago. 

Speaking to GB News, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said the Government would not blink first to end the strikes crippling the country: “It’s very important that we actually are mindful of the interest of the wider public and the taxpayer.”

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Mr Harper went on to suggest that the unions were being offered pay rises similar to those seen in the private sector – a claim undermined by the latest wage growth data. 

According to the ONS, average pay for private sector workers increased by 6.9 percent between August and October, compared to just 2.7 percent for those employed in the public sector.

“This is the largest growth rate seen for the private sector and is among the largest differences between the private sector and public sector growth rates we have seen,” said the ONS. 

However, despite average total pay across both sectors going up by 6.1 percent between those months, in real terms – taking inflation into account – wages fell by 2.7 percent. 

Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Frances O’Grady said the year has been “the worst for real wage growth in nearly half a century,” before adding: “We are now on the brink of a damaging recession with the threat of one million lost jobs.”

Polling data show backing for public sector workers striking over Christmas is waning. “The tide of opinion amongst the public is turning,” Mr Harper told ITV. “They would like the fair and reasonable offer on the table to be accepted.”

However, public support varies significantly depending on the group of workers considered. While a majority of the general public are behind nurses striking for better pay, far fewer back the upcoming rail strikes.

In an poll carried out between November 23 and November 28, 83 percent of respondents said rail strikes should be made illegal in light of their latest walkout plans.

And, according to a YouGov survey taken over the summer, support was lowest for university staff (32 percent), civil servants (27 percent) and barristers (19 percent). 

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