Britain’s Winter of Discontent

Britain’s Winter of Discontent

If unions here are weaker and smaller than in Margaret Thatcher’s day, their strikes are also far more popular.


London—Every Thursday at 8 pm during the spring of 2020, British people would emerge from lockdown for a few brief minutes and make some noise. Some of us bashed pots and pans, others cheered and whooped, others simply clapped. This display of national gratitude was for our “essential workers”—nurses, bus and train drivers, teachers and sanitation and Deliveroo workers—who had to do their jobs so that society could function. With Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (as they all were then) joining in, we clearly weren’t all clapping for the same thing.

I joined in, partly because I thought it significant that the public sector workers were being hailed as critical to our lives. To call them “essential” was no longer a rhetorical point but a literal and quasi-legal designation. The country couldn’t operate without them. But I also kept hoping, in vain, that this moment of collective appreciation might morph into moments of localized protest at the pitiful way in which the government was actually managing the pandemic.

Last month Britain’s Conservative government—Johnson’s successors—introduced a law that would criminalize most of the very workers we were applauding if they had the audacity to seek their rewards not in claps but in hard currency and go on strike. The new law would enable bosses in what are deemed essential sectors—education, the fire service, ambulance drivers, rail workers and nuclear power—to sue unions and sack employees if minimum levels for public safety are not met.

The unions have responded with a coordinated day of strike action across the public sector tomorrow—February 1—including 100,000 teachers, 100,000 civil servants, train drivers, train operators, security guards, and lecturers at 150 universities.

Even as the bill was being debated in Parliament, 90 percent of teachers in England—and 92 percent in Wales—voted to strike, while the nurses’ union announced a further two days of strikes.

They are in good company. Ambulance staff and firefighters, postal workers, bus drivers, border security agents, driving license examiners, physiotherapists have all been striking or are about to strike too.

It says a great deal about how long it has been since we last saw this level of union militancy in Britain that it is being referred to in the media as “the winter of discontent.” The phrase, taken from the first line of Shakespeare’s Richard III, refers to the surge in strike action in the winter of 1978–79 that helped bring down the Labour government.

Between November 1978 and March 1979, Britain saw the most pervasive wave of strikes—including gravediggers, hospital cleaners, truck drivers, school cafeteria workers, pilots and printers—since the general strike of 1926. Garbage piled up, bodies went unburied, and snow-bound roads went uncleared. Having taken union support for granted, the Labour Party was caught wrong-footed when workers refused to put its electoral prospects before their own financial well-being. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won the election in May and—after a significant period of accommodating and even submitting to organized labor,—she picked her moment for a showdown with the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984–85. Eventually, the miners returned to work defeated, marking a long term shift in the balance of power between workers and employers that has never been reversed, and accelerating both a negative popular attitude toward trade unions and a collapse in union membership.

Spot the Difference

Since it is still winter here—and there is a disproportionate amount of strike activity—comparisons with 1979 are not completely absurd. But the similarities pretty much stop there.

Trade union membership peaked in 1979; recently, the numbers have been increasing slightly after a steep decline. Britain today has around half the number of union members it did in 1979, even though the workforce is considerably larger.

In 1979, almost 30 million working days were lost to strikes—virtually a day’s strike action for every worker in the country. Last year, only a million working days were lost to strike action—which still made it the most militant in several decades. This year will be even more disruptive.

But the current strikes are not indefinite, just inconvenient. Unions declare in advance which days they will be on strike: Usually, they are out for a few days a month. University lecturers (my union) have announced 18 days over the February and March. Newspapers produce color-coded calendars explaining who will be on strike and when. There has not, as of yet, been a major all-out strike lasting until the demands are met.

However, if the unions are weaker and smaller today, their strikes are also far more popular. The very workers the government is currently targeting have the most public support. Nurses, ambulance staff, teachers, and firefighters all have high levels of public backing for their disputes. Perhaps all that clapping meant something after all.

There is good reason for this. These strikes are fundamentally over pay. The unions’ pay demands are hardly excessive. Nurses’ salaries have fallen by 8 percent in real terms since 2010 and secondary school teachers’ by 13 percent. Across the board, public sector workers have seen their pay fall by 4.3 percent since 2010, when the Tories came in. Inflation currently stands at just over 10 percent. Nurses and railway workers are being offered 3 percent; teachers have been offered 5 percent. Most want raises just above or at inflation; most would settle for even less than that. Nurses—rightly seen as heroes for working through the pandemic—are asking for inflation plus 5 percent.

The government claims that meeting these demands will fuel an inflationary spiral. But union leaders point out that since workers’ wages have been declining in real terms, it is not wages that are driving inflation.

But pay is where the disputes begin, not where the discontent ends. The challenges faced by these public sector workers resonate with large numbers of Britons struggling to get by in what has been euphemistically termed a cost-of-living crisis.

Real wages in the UK are below where they were 18 years ago. Energy bills went up 80 percent last year—and are set to go up again. A quarter of adults now struggle to keep warm in their living rooms and are going to bed earlier in order to keep themselves warm.

Food inflation is more than 13 percent. Almost two-thirds of those in the most deprived areas of the country said they were buying less food and almost a quarter nationwide said they had either skipped a meal or eaten less because they couldn’t afford food. One in five people being referred to foodbanks are from households where someone works; a study of more than 1,000 nurses found that one in five had used food banks and two-thirds were having to choose between food and fuel.

After more than a decade of austerity, public services here are on their knees, and the people who work in those services have risen up as the last line of defense. So these strikes are not simply understood as workers defending their sectional interests but as workers striking in the public interest.

For much of last summer and fall, the public face of these strikes was the leader of the National Railway, Maritime and Transport workers union, Mick Lynch, a straight-talking left-winger whose incredible gift for clarity, calm, and deadpan putdowns made him a media sensation.

In a public interview with Lynch in September, I asked him why, given the number of strikes in different sectors, the unions didn’t just call a general strike.

“It would probably be illegal under current industrial legislation,” he said. “[But] what we have to do is generalise the discontent, generalise the industrial and political response. so that it is clear that working-class people are being mobilised, and we then support the actual industrial action with collective action on the streets.”

A Show of Ineptitude

The government’s response to these strikes has not, thus far, been to negotiate with the unions. However, this is not a show of strength but of ineptitude; it doesn’t have a plan beyond coercion. After several months of staring into the headlights, demanding that leaders with overwhelming strike mandates order their members back to work with below-inflation offers, they decided to just outlaw the right to strike for essential workers altogether. This was an act of vindictive desperation. It was already difficult to strike in England. A union must attain at least a 50 percent turnout in a ballot and then receive at least 40 percent in favor of a strike from all eligible voters—a degree of electoral legitimacy no British government has enjoyed since the Second World War.

Adding another layer of anti-union legislation—effectively banning strikes in certain sectors—will not solve the problem.

Moreover, the rationale for the new law of “guaranteeing minimum levels of staffing for public safety” would be funny if the reality were not so grim. Minimum levels for public safety are seldom being met on days when there is no strike. Indeed, that is why a lot of people are on strike. Take health care. According to the National Health Service performance targets, responses to emergency calls—which include strokes or severe burns—should be made within 18 minutes. In July, when there were no strikes and very little flu, responses took on average 59 minutes. And when the sick get to hospital, they don’t fare much better. Almost one in four ambulance patients in Britain waited more than an hour with crews before they even being admitted to the emergency ward. In the wards, they are increasingly routed to trolleys in the corridors because there are no available beds. So government accusations that striking health workers are putting patients’ lives at risk ring hollow because most people’s experience of dysfunction in the health service does not coincide with strike days. Actually delivering “minimum levels for public safety” would be a huge improvement.

Low Pay Is No Accident

The source of this dysfunction is also the source of the grievances that prompted the strike action in the first place: low pay. In almost every sector now on strike, there is a chronic labor shortage—a common problem throughout the West, aggravated in Britain by large numbers of European workers’ going home after Brexit and early retirement.

This is no accident. Since the Tories took over after the financial crisis, it has been government policy to suppress wages and investment in the public sector; now a combination of higher fuel prices and a huge spike in inflation have now made their positions untenable. Wages are so low in these sectors that people are leaving and new workers cannot be recruited. Turnover is high and morale is at rock bottom. The situation is particularly dire in the National Health Service—which has always been reliant on migrant labour. The two nurses whom United Kingdom prime minister, Boris Johnson, singled out for praise after they helped him back to health in 2020 were from Portugal and New Zealand. A year later the New Zealander, Jenny McGee, quit. “We’re not getting the respect and now pay that we deserve. I’m just sick of it. So I’ve handed in my resignation,” she said.

The NHS currently has a 6 percent vacancy rate for medical posts and 12 percent for nursing. Meanwhile, the adult social care sector is limping along with more than 10 percent vacancies. One in eight new teachers leave within a year, and 8 percent of all teachers quit in 2021, leaving a record number of vacancies since 2010.

When you consider that the retail grocery chain Sainsbury’s has raised its hourly wage by 38 percent in the past six years, it becomes clear why more than two-thirds of hospital trusts say nurses are leaving for hospitality and retail, while care workers are becoming truck drivers.

That’s also why the government has not been able to undermine these strikes with scab labor—they couldn’t find people desperate enough to do the work at the rate being offered.

Meanwhile those who still work in the health service say they are too short staffed to do their jobs properly. A friend who quit the NHS last year said she would often be in teams of three or four doing the work of six or seven, constantly worried that something crucial would be missed and never fully able to provide the care for which she had been trained.

On the picket line at Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital in December, another nurse said, “More money for us would be nice. But we’re striking for the future of the service, really. We just can’t carry on like this.”

The Tories have few options. They are currently 22 points behind Labour in the polls, while favorability ratings for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak currently stand at -29—and half the country believes they do not have a clear idea of what they stand for.

Embroiled in a series of financial scandals, exposing both their venality and corruption, they are on their third prime minister in six months. Economically, they have misgoverned themselves into a corner. After more than a decade of austerity, public sector borrowing in December hit the highest level on record. Taxes are going up while cuts in services are continuing, aggravating both their base and their opponents.

Unable to win with the hand they were dealt, they’ve tried to change the rules, banning strikes for key workers. The unions have responded with the united action on February 1, which marks an escalation in coordination and activity. But it seems increasingly clear that the government is happy to subject the country to a state of permanent disruption rather than hammer out a settlement, in the hope that strikers will be exhausted into submission.

But the unions also have their backs against the wall. Their only option now is to escalate, calling the kind of indefinite strikes and united action the government can no longer pretend to ignore; to engage with communities to convert the broad sense of frustration and desperation into protests that are even more disruptive; to bring the country beyond the stage of inconvenience to a state of crisis that might actually force a reckoning. Not all the lessons from the original winter of discontent are negative. But in order to become more effective, the striking workers may have to risk becoming less popular.

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