Earlier this month, teachers, university lecturers, train drivers, civil servants, nurses and ambulance drivers were among union members to walk out of their jobs in the UK.
On ‘The Day of Action’ on February 1st and in the weeks that follow, there is an extensive calendar of strikes planned by a range of professionals, including public sector workers like those in health care, across the UK.
“The principal issue is the cost-of-living crisis that the UK is currently undergoing,” explains Dr Greig Taylor, lecturer at the UNSW Business School and industrial relations expert, who moved from the UK to Australia. “Rising inflation, energy and grocery bill rises, and wage freezes that have fallen behind the consumer price index over the last decade or more have led to an explosion in wage claims.”
He also says there’s several other reasons that strikers are taking to the streets, like rail unions striking over proposals for guard-less trains, nurses over staff to patient ratios and university lecturers over proposed changes to pensions.
With Australia undergoing its own cost of living pressures, which also include interest rate rises from the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), housing stress, rising fuel prices, fears of inflation, price rises and wealth inequality, it is likely we will see more strikes here in Australia, he says.
“In short, while there are grievances, we can expect strike action in some sectors to continue,” Dr Taylor says.
From what Dr Taylor terms “increasingly authoritarian” protest laws to rising economic pressures between Australia and the UK, there are plenty of parallels – and differences – between the Australian and British strikes. He explains if we might see a replication of the ‘Day of Action’ Down Under.
What is the UK government doing about the strikes?
Dr Greig Taylor: In a nutshell, not enough.
The Conservative party (similar to the Liberal National party in Australia), which forms the current government, loves to be seen to act tough with organised labour because it has historically been regarded as a vote winner. The Conservatives over the last several decades have been the architects of a restrictive legal framework that makes it difficult for unions and workers to go on strike – again, similar to the Liberals in Australia.
But on this occasion, public opinion more generally seems to be on the workers’ side. There are a few reasons for this:
Firstly, everyone is feeling the pinch now – in the supermarket, at the petrol station, for electricity and gas bills – and so I think the general, non-unionised public and workforce sympathise because they too know first-hand the challenges that the strikers are protesting about. This has been compounded by stories of energy and grocery companies making record profits, which seems to many – even those who are pro-market or arch-capitalists – as vulgar under the circumstances.
Secondly, except for maybe the rail unions, the unions and workers involved in the UK public sector have historically been fairly conservative and reluctant to engage in strike action. This is partially because of the nature of their work: nurses and teachers care deeply about their profession in the knowledge that they provide a vital public service, and so industrial action is often the recourse of last resort.
But these sections of worker were hailed as heroes by politicians and the media during the pandemic for keeping public services going. And now they want more than clapping and thanks – and rightfully so.
The UK government is sticking to the line that it can’t afford inflation-linked pay increases, instead offering around 4 per cent. But inflation was at 11 per cent in October 2022. The government has also threatened to ‘get tough’ by introducing legislation that will dictate minimum service levels in public services (something which unions and workers already observe voluntarily to some degree), further inciting workers who feel that the government is insensitive to their grievances.
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Are there any parallels between what’s going on in the UK and the recent strikes in Australia?
Dr Taylor: There are certainly parallels because the pressures causing the current strike wave in the UK are global, not national – for example, supply-side shocks from the Ukraine war and the hangover from COVID pandemic-related quantitative easing and public debt. Brexit is also contributing to the UK issue.
In Australia too we have seen teachers, nurses and others strike over pay, although these tend to be on a sector-by-sector basis, not usually coordinated like in the UK. One of the reasons for this is that Australia’s industrial relations laws are even more tough than the UK’s. In Australia, industrial action is effectively illegal outside of enterprise bargaining periods, making it difficult for workers and their unions to coordinate without stiff penalties.
Another parallel lies in the somewhat muted and stubborn response from Australian state governments – i.e., ‘we can’t afford a rise, so we’re not going to engage in meaningful discussions’. This makes politicians look insensitive to people’s problems and out-of-touch with the realities of the cost-of-living crisis. They should at least demonstrate good will by showing some flexibility.
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What role could ‘anti-strike’ or ‘anti-protest’ laws play in this – both in Australia and UK?
Dr Taylor: As previously mentioned, the UK government threatened to ‘get tough’ by introducing legislation that will dictate minimum service levels in public services (something which unions and workers already observe voluntarily to some degree), further inciting workers who feel that the government is insensitive to their grievances.
The high-profile case of the environment protester on Sydney Harbour Bridge recently and the harsh sentence, which was later overturned, that she received are testament to the increasingly coercive laws and lengths that governments are willing to go to to stop people protesting, whether that’s about working conditions or the environment.
The NSW laws are an affront to the democratic tradition of protest and set a dangerous precedent. The UK government is also following suit, hoping to grant new and increasingly authoritarian powers to police.
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Can the government satisfy the demands of public sector workers without making inflation worse?
Dr Taylor: This is a common myth and misconception.
I’m no economist, but mainstream economic thought recognises that inflation and related wage rise demands by workers are symptoms of microeconomic policy failure and supply-side shocks, not causes of it.
Only last week I heard UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak parrot this wage-price spiral myth – he should know better considering his background in finance. It’s a convenient way for unsympathetic politicians to scaremonger against workers pursuing legitimate wage claims.
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What sectors do you think will strike - or continue to strike - in Australia?
Dr Taylor: Teachers have been forced into arbitration in NSW, with the Industrial Relations Commission awarding 6 per cent over two years. The train strikes in Sydney, which had been ongoing for some time, also appear to have reached an agreement.
There will always be industrial strife at the ports in Australia because of the antagonistic relationship between employers and workers in that industry, although most major stevedores have also recently reached Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) after tortuous bargaining.
There are still difficulties at Qantas, while nurses are still refusing to agree to the 3 per cent pay cap offered by the Perrottet government.
What ‘lessons’ might Australia take from the UK strikes?
Dr Taylor: That the cost-of-living crisis is a major driver for strikes in Australia and other economically similar countries.
This might begin to abate as inflation cools and interest rates are dialled back. But, even aside from the recent global pressures, wage growth has been stagnant or behind CPI (Consumer Price Index) for years now. The average non-unionised worker is starting to recognise that trickle-down economics don’t work and that the gap between the richest and the rest is widening.
Will this force more people towards the union movement or centre-left/left politics? I am not sure. Instead, we’ve seen populism and economic nationalism rear its head in some countries.
Dr Taylor is available to speak with media and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.