Large-scale strikes by rail workers, posties and public sector key workers are more likely to grab the headlines, but elsewhere union members have been successful in winning impressive pay rises
By Saskia Murphy
After four weeks on strike, Liverpool bus driver and Unite convenor Ged Bresnahan had good news to deliver to his colleagues on the picket lines. Following months of dispute over pay, Arriva had put forward a pay offer of 11.1 per cent – backdated four months – with over 2,000 Unite members set to benefit from the rise.
“It was a good moment,” says Bresnahan, a bus driver of 41 years. “There was a mixture of shock, relief, and excitement with a lot of them.”
Around 1,800 bus drivers had been in dispute with the company since talks over pay started in February. Arriva initially offered drivers a 3 per cent non-conditional pay rise – or 6 per cent if they agreed to give up their right to sick pay.
By the time Unite members voted for industrial action in July, the looming cost of living crisis was dominating the headlines. Bresnahan says their cause felt all the more urgent.
“Everything was going up,” Bresnahan says. “Petrol was going up, gas and electricity were going up. People were coming in and talking about how their food shop might have been £70 last month, and now it was £110. Everyone was finding it tighter and tighter.”
A bin strike led by GMB in Windsor ended after workers accepted a pay rise of 17 per cent
For four weeks Bresnahan joined colleagues on the picket line at Green Lane bus depot in Liverpool. The strikes caused disruption across Merseyside and hit services in Cheshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester. But despite the disruption to services, Bresnahan says he and colleagues felt passengers were onside.
“We had a hell of a lot of support from the public,” says Bresnahan. “That went down really well and I think that’s what kept the morale up.
“None of the drivers want to be in the position of taking industrial action. They want to get passengers to where they want to go, and to their hospital and doctors’ appointments. Drivers aren’t there [on the picket line] because they want to be there.”
As Bresnahan says, no worker takes the decision to strike lightly. But across the country, the cost of living crisis is spurring workers from across different sectors to take action.
More than a decade of pay freezes and below-inflation pay offers has left people struggling to afford rising costs – and the so-called summer of discontent is rolling into the autumn.
In the coming months more than one million workers from the public sector – across health, education, and the civil service – will be balloted by their unions.
Royal Mail workers are to stage a further 48-hour strike starting at the end of this month in a dispute over pay and conditions – with 115,000 members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) striking for 48 hours on 30 September and 1 October.
And at the time of writing rail unions are set to announce further strike action that was postponed following the death of the Queen.
But while large-scale strikes by rail workers, posties and public sector key workers are more likely to grab the headlines, across the country workers and their unions are fighting and winning inflation-busting pay rises.
Earlier this month a bin strike led by GMB in Windsor ended after just one day after workers accepted a pay rise of 17 per cent.
In August 700 Heinz workers represented by Unite secured a pay rise of 11 per cent and successfully negotiated for an extra three days off at Christmas.
And young hospitality workers at Sheffield’s Cutlery Works food hall recently organised to negotiate a 44 per cent pay rise after a citywide trade union campaign targeted the company. Until last month the Cutlery Works’ employees aged 18-20 were on the legal minimum wage of £6.83 per hour for their age bracket. But following the campaign the food hall has agreed to become a Living Wage employer – paying all workers £9.90 an hour. The workers also negotiated for an end to zero-hours contracts and to receive regular guaranteed hours.
Trevor Stephens, a warehouse operative, found himself on the picket line for the first time last year when his employer Clarks tried to fire staff and rehire them on less favourable terms and conditions – including a reduction in hourly wage.
After two months of industrial action, Stephens’ union Community reached an agreement with the shoe retailer that protects the pay of workers – taking the company’s attempt at controversial fire-and-rehire tactics off the table.
Like Bresnahan, Stephens says public support helped him and his colleagues through their strike, and Stephens says he read supportive letters and emails from the public out on the picket line.
As unions prepare to ballot members, Stephens speaks of the issues facing workers – and why many will make the difficult decision to strike.
“I think it’s got to the stage now where people are having to stand up and make their voices heard,” he says. “Because with inflation and everything else that we’ve got at the moment, it is so hard for people to make a living. There are people who are actually on the breadline. People are in poverty and they are working full time jobs.”
Pushing the envelope
Mark Metcalf on the Royal Mail picket line in Halifax
Few workers want to be on strike. Sacrifices are needed, it takes time to win support for action across the workforce, there are legal restrictions, public support is not assured, organising effective picketing is hard work and underpinning everything is the fear that the action may be unsuccessful and leave strikers in a weaker position on their return to work.
Claire Lord has been a postal worker for 21 years and is an elected CWU workplace representative in Halifax. She previously took strike action 13 years ago over job security and working conditions – a dispute that ended with a compromise deal with the Royal Mail, then publicly owned.
“The process of going on strike is a very long one,” says Lord. “There are no union barons instructing workers what to do. Our leaders are elected and, to obtain support for strike action, members are consulted first and then balloted.”
Back in 2017, CWU members were stopped from taking action when the High Court ruled the union did not properly follow the dispute resolution procedures. Royal Mail legal action also prevented Christmas strikes in 2019.
In July, 115,000 CWU postal workers voted by 97.6 per cent, on a 77 per cent turnout, to take action until they receive a “dignified, proper pay rise”. This followed extensive negotiations between Royal Mail, privatised in 2013, and the union.
Four days of walkouts have taken place by CWU members, including Terry*, in Halifax. But he fears this may not prove enough to force his employer to make an agreement.
“The two sides are a long way from what they both want. The company has imposed a 2 per cent pay deal on us and, with inflation that would mean a massive drop in living standards.
“Royal Mail also wants to massively change our working conditions such, as for example, moving everyone on to statutory sick pay and getting people to work on Sundays.”
The CWU wants a no-strings pay increase.
Carol* has been taking strike action for the first time.
“It is hard to persuade people to walk out because they lose money,” she says. “But I believe it is the only logical action as everyone’s bills are rising quickly.
“The normal jolly working atmosphere has gone due to the pressure on household budgets, especially those with families. There is also anger that despite having worked during the pandemic, when we not only delivered letters but were the only friendly face that many single, elderly people saw for many weeks, we appear to be of no value to the employer, who has enormously increased senior executives’ pay and handed out massive dividends to shareholders.”
Carol has been buoyed by her customers’ support for the strikes – “which I think is mirrored among the public in general due to their own current hardships”.
Everyone taking action will be losing some pay and trade union members in other industries have been asked to make donations to help out. Unions have established hardship funds.
“The support of other trade unionists has been fantastic,” says Lord. “We have been delighted that a number have shown solidarity on our picket lines, which are designed to persuade possible waverers not to go into work, bring strikers together and show that we are serious about our intentions to the public. We will answer any questions from then and explain our actions.”
Carol was encouraged that just one person out of over 185 staff – 95 per cent of whom are CWU members – had crossed the CWU picket line in the first two days of strike action in Halifax, a place not traditionally known for its militancy.
* Names have been changed
Further and higher education staff are taking action over increasingly precarious and low-paid work, reports Mark Metcalf
Susan, a University and College Union (UCU) member from Sheffield, has been a lecturer for a decade. She has been forced to accept short term contracts.
Despite her precarious working conditions, she took part in strikes in the spring over pay, pensions and conditions, though she did not join the picket line.
“I had previously taken action in 2020 and it demoralised me to see many colleagues not joining in. I also did not want to try and stop my managers going into work.”
According to the UCU, 46 per cent of universities and 60 per cent of colleges use zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching, and 68 per cent of research staff in higher education are on fixed-term contracts, with many more dependent on short-term funding for continued employment.
Richard, an administrator, was a UCU steward for many years.
He expects to be among university staff who will join the current wave of industrial action sweeping across the country as the UCU is balloting staff in a dispute over pensions and pay and conditions.
If the union gets the support of a majority of its higher education members on an overall turnout of more than 50 per cent then strikes will follow in November, along with further ballots for industrial action in spring 2023.
“We have taken strike action over the last few years because our pay has been cut by about a fifth since 2007, when we last got a decent rise, and the employers are attacking our pensions. My job is fairly secure but many UCU teaching members have been pushed into precarious positions.
“When I see colleagues cross the picket line it is quite demoralising and personally difficult to rationalise, especially when back at work you must always be civil.
“I suspect when I end working here I won’t remain in contact with those who’ve been strike breakers.”
But what has always lifted Richard’s spirits on picket lines is the arrival of trade unionists from other workplaces.
“There have been RMT and CWU members who have come along with their banners, cups of tea and cakes.”
RMT members tell Mark Metcalf why they are stiking
Gary*, RMT member working as a guard at Huddersfield
“Working class people are being eviscerated by this government, which in our case can, because it provides vast public subsidies that franchise operators rely on, step in to end the rail disputes by agreeing a decent pay deal that protects jobs, working conditions and the rail network. Many members of the public see us as fighting for them and other less organised union members are looking at us as figureheads in their battles over pay”.
Tom*, RMT member
“Network Rail and the operating companies, which are handing out dividends to shareholders, can afford to make us a decent pay offer. They must, as bills are rocketing. It may take a while as the companies know that the longer it goes on the greater the pressure is as bills such as mortgage payment must still be paid.”
* Names changed
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