The United Kingdom has been experiencing a new round of massive walkouts since Thursday in transport, post and ports. A strike movement started this summer which is gaining momentum and coagulates around a central problem: the purchasing power of the British, who want wage increases.
« Are we heading for a general strike? » headlined the BBC on July 28. If the United Kingdom does not yet seem to have reached this stage, strikes have nevertheless multiplied in several sectors across the Channel since the beginning of the summer against galloping inflation.
The latest to date, workers at the port of Felixstowe – the largest cargo port in the east of England, which handles nearly four million containers a year – began an eight-day strike on Sunday August 21 to demand better wages in the face of record inflation. Crane operators, machine operators, dockers… Some 1,900 members of the powerful British union Unite have stopped work to demand wage increases. A first for more than thirty years, the last strike dating back to 1989, at the end of the Thatcher years.
And they are not the only ones: postal services, garbage collectors, lawyers, employees of the telecom operator BT or Amazon handlers have also walked out or plan to do so soon. Rail workers have been disrupting the operation of British transport (including the London Underground) since August 18. It is already the biggest rail strike movement – again since 1989. It could « go on indefinitely », warned the general secretary of the RMT union, Mick Lynch, with the walkouts by railway workers continuing by episodes since June to demand a salary increase adapted to the increase in the cost of living.
« It’s a very hot summer on a social level, » explains our correspondent in the United Kingdom, Bénédicte Paviot. « Existing strikes in several sectors will undoubtedly increase, this is the prevailing feeling here. »
“What is historic in this movement are the sectors on strike”, notes for his part to FranceInfo Marc Lenormand, lecturer at Paul Valéry University in English studies and British civilization, specialist in British social movements. « What is special today is to see private sectors, sometimes industrial, on strike, which has not been the case depending on the sector for twenty, thirty, even forty years. »
Economic context and determination of the strikers
The loss of purchasing power for the British is a cement of the current social protest: wages do not follow the course of inflation in the United Kingdom – which reached 10.1% over one year in July, compared to 6.1% in France. And the economic forecasts are not looking any better: the Bank of England expects inflation to be revised upwards to 13.3% in October, and predicts that it will remain at high levels in 2023.
According to the general secretary of the RMT union, « British workers are fundamentally underpaid ». And Mick Lynch added that the movement “will not be broken” and could on the contrary extend to “every sector of the economy” in the coming weeks.
Faced with the increase in the price of food, clothing and even energy – an 82% increase in the electricity bill is expected for next October – the wage increases currently proposed sector by sector do not satisfy not the striking employees.
Port of Felixstowe officials said they were « disappointed that Unite did not accept our offer to call off the strike » after offering a pay rise of 8% on average – and close to 10% for the worst workers paid. Negotiations for the rail sector are, for their part, deadlocked.
The only certainty: the strikers seem determined, whereas initiating a social movement today in the United Kingdom is an obstacle course. This is a legacy of the Thatcher years, when the British Prime Minister (1979-1990) – nicknamed the « Iron Lady » because of her resistance to several social movements – had the right to strike modified.
« (She) had a law passed to make it particularly difficult to strike and, far from having been abolished since, this law has been reinforced by the current government », according to Sarah Pickard, lecturer in contemporary British civilization at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, interviewed by 20 Minutes. The specialist explains that spontaneous strikes are completely prohibited across the Channel, and that it is necessary to file a notice of vote, then to organize a vote of the unions while « knowing that the voice of the absent is considered as a vote against. »
Liz Truss in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher
Despite these legislative hurdles, several British sectors massively participated in the vote for a strike. « What is quite remarkable is that indeed in these consultations, there are very high participation rates, often more than 80% », notes Marc Lenormand on FranceInfo.
Faced with this flammable social situation, the British government – shaken by a political crisis which brought down Boris Johnson – is slow to provide answers. In the rail sector, the current Minister of Transport, Grant Shapps, is singled out by the trade unions, accused of not giving the companies a sufficient mandate to negotiate.
Another reason for social anger: the executive has just amended the law to allow the use of temporary workers to replace strikers if necessary.
Finally, Boris Johnson’s two potential successors in Downing Street – Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – do not seem to want a social dialogue. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer is instead in favor of banning strikes for essential public services.
The favorite for the post of Prime Minister has, for her part, said in a tweet, August 19, that she “will not let” the United Kingdom “be held to ransom by militant trade unionists” if she becomes Prime Minister. She also promised that she would crack down harder on ongoing strikes, following in the footsteps of a certain Margaret Thatcher.