Impact of Inflation

Why Britain is experiencing its highest number of strikes in decades

James Hoctor27. Februar 2023
A healthcare worker protests in central London.
A healthcare worker protests in central London.
Inflation is having a massive impact in the UK. The country is experiencing more strikes than it has in decades. The conservative government reacted with authoritarian means. But that could backfire.

In the United Kingdom, workers in transport, healthcare, education and public services, as well as in the private sector have been striking in their hundreds of thousands since summer 2022, formulating key demands including pay rises, job retention, an end to casualisation and privatisation, and union recognition. As negotiations with employers and the government fail to deliver satisfactory results, unions continue to successfully ballot their members for strike action. Last year saw the highest number of working days lost to strike action since 1989, and talk of a general strike, not seen in the UK since 1926, grows day by day.

This action has not come from nowhere, with workers facing a historic squeeze on living standards. The austerity politics of the 2010s inflicted long-term harm on the UK economy and society, and ensuing economic shocks, in the forms of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit and rising inflation in 2022, have in turn deepened the crisis. The Conservative government’s method of opposing the strikes using increased legal and police powers has heightened the political character of the strike wave, with a re-energised left rallying behind strikers. That workers have turned to collective action to improve their position and take back what’s theirs after a decade of stolen wage growth and security is hardly a surprise.


Unions began to ballot their members before the summer of 2022, with railway workers and union members at BT and Royal Mail setting a militant tone. Pay was central to these disputes, but also opposition to ‘restructuring’ – a euphemism for job losses and erosion of employment standards. By autumn other public sector workers, including teachers, university staff, civil servants, and most notably, nurses began the process to hold strike action. The fairly moderate Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had in its 107-year history never before called for strike action.

These public sector workers have mostly not seen a real-terms pay rise since 2010, which has contributed in turn to labour shortages in those sectors. The nurses and teachers, though principally in dispute over pay, emphasise when on the picket line their intention not simply to protest at their maltreatment, but to highlight deep failings of the management and delivery of education and healthcare in the UK – they are on strike for the sake of patients and school pupils, and the public supports them for it.

Perhaps less impactful in the public imagination, though no less important for the future of trade unionism in the UK, are the strikes in the private sector. Shoe factories, biscuit manufacturers, and airport staff among others have all fought off falling standards with effective campaigns. Amazon workers in Coventry alongside the GMB union are fighting a landmark battle for health and safety oversight, changes to working time and union recognition, suggesting the strike wave extends to sectors of the economy that have been historically difficult to organise.


As in other countries, the immediate background to the strikes is rising inflation, which sits stubbornly at just over 10% today, and has been as high as 14% in the UK. The inability of the UK’s economy to shield incomes from the economic shock of 2022 and to recover from previous shocks, such as the pandemic, is unsurprisingly related to the austerity politics of Conservative governments since 2010. While investment and productivity growth slumped, precarious employment proliferated in this period, and pay stagnated: before 2007, typical household incomes in the UK were higher than in France and Germany – by 2018 they were respectively 9% and 16% lower.

Austerity has not only squeezed pay and living standards, it has hollowed out much of the state’s capacity to protect and empower its citizens. Legal barriers to union organising, such as prohibitive ballot thresholds and a complex regime of achieving union recognition, mean that UK workers find fewer opportunities than German workers, for example, to engage in established collective bargaining, and turn instead to more militant action. One can therefore be assured that if other sectors, such as social care, were unionised to the degree that healthcare or teaching are, we would be seeing many more strikes.

Political consequences

The UK government initially opposed the strikes with lazy references to a mythical “wage-price spiral” which never materialised. Once that argument was lost, an authoritarian approach was taken in the Strikes (Minimal Level Services) Bill, which would force unions to agree to send some union members across picket lines to work on strike days, effectively undermining the action. The government claimed this was standard practice in Europe – what they failed to mention was that in 85% of European countries with such legislation, the arrangement was negotiated in a collective agreement between employers and trade unions, rather than coercively imposed by government.

The unions have largely been left to fend for themselves, with a centrist Labour Party taking a non-committal stance on the strikes, although condemning the Bill. Legal challenges to the Bill are being developed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and unions have already organized coordinated strike action to oppose the government’s strategy. The Bill certainly raises the political stakes, and like other recent authoritarian attempts to shut down dissent and police the crisis, aim is to demoralize and disperse opposition.

The government may have picked the wrong fight. There is appetite among rank and file trade unionists for sustained collective action, and the strike wave has shown a degree of muscle in the public sector, as well as dynamic activity in the less well-organized, lower-wage and migrant working-class. Where in recent years the necessary political leadership to build a new consensus has lacked, it is now the striking workers in the UK, and the many millions supporting them, who are making the case for a democratic economy, and a more antagonistic politics.

Klick here for the German version

weiterführender Artikel