UK and Ireland correspondent
UK and Ireland correspondent
A wave of public sector strikes is making life particularly complicated for Britons this holiday season. Public transport is down, the mail is not delivered and the weathermen also stop. From now until January 10, at least one trade group is on strike every day: from teachers to firefighters, bus drivers and customs officers.
Today around 100,000 British health workers are on strike. Nurses running away from their patients, with all the associated risks, this has never happened before.
The Royal College of Nursing union is demanding a 19 percent pay rise. But it is not only about money, there is also a structural lack of staff and a great lack of available beds. And it leads to emergencies in the British health system, the NHS.
Ambulance hours too late
The national healthcare system, free for all, is a source of national pride. But the workload and practical issues are increasingly compromising patient safety, according to staff. There are 7 million people on the waiting list for surgery – partly because of the pandemic. Ambulances, whose staff also plan to strike this month, are hours behind schedule in some regions.
The strike wave is compared to the winter of our discontent, the winter of discontent. The term, originally borrowed from Shakespeare, became famous during the massive strikes of the winter of 1978/1979, which were also fueled by high inflation.
With our wages and rising costs, even buying food has become a challenge.
The common driving force for all striking public sectors is high inflation and frustration over years of austerity. The greatly increased expenditure on food and energy means that the employees, whose wages do not rise in line with it, fall. This year saw the steepest fall in living standards in the UK on record.
In the public sector in particular, wages, with an average annual increase of 2.2 percent, lag far behind as prices rise: inflation is now 11.1 percent. Low-income earners feel it the hardest, as they spend a larger portion of their wages on food and utility bills.
Nurse Ameera is also on strike, she says: “With our wages and rising costs, even buying food has become a challenge. Sisters now have to go to the food bank to get food for their families, after long stressful days and a lot of overtime. And then we haven’t talked about the bills, school fees, you name it.”
In the public sector, the employer is the public sector. And it has two simple reasons for not letting wages rise in line with inflation. It is ‘unaffordable’ and may further exacerbate the ‘wage-price spiral’, the economic idea that rising wages and rising prices drive each other. The billions it would cost to raise wages for all these striking sectors would add to the national debt. Even Labor has no clear answer to the question of how to finance this should the opposition party now rule the country.
Life seriously disrupted
The Conservative government’s current strategy appears to be primarily aimed at minimizing the damage caused by the strikes. For example, there are plans to use the army as customs officials and to have ambulances driven by police officers.
It is a stalemate that can last for months. A government that believes it cannot afford to pay workers more faces unions that say workers cannot afford to be paid less.
Meanwhile, British life is seriously disrupted. The hospitality sector fears the train strikes will miss out on £1.5bn. Christmas cards and gifts piling up in the depots did not arrive until months later. The tabloids write that, just like during the pandemic, families had to celebrate Christmas via video link again, because travel is almost impossible due to all the strikes.
Deaths are feared in the healthcare system. The ‘winter of discomfort’ has begun and spring is still a long way off.