Unions such as the RMT (Rail & Maritime Union) and the CWU (Communication Workers Union) have undertaken a series of strikes, causing mass disruption and promising more action over the coming months. During the current year, we have seen strikes from barristers, refuse collectors and workers at the Port of Felixstowe, one of the busiest ports in the country, for disputes over pay and conditions. These are just three examples out of many.
Indeed, the election of Sharon Graham to General Secretary of Unite has seen a more proactive approach, with her claiming that Unite has already won 80% of the disputes they have raised with employers. RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch has risen to prominence for a series of boisterous interviews that have been shared widely across social media, which have enjoyed popularity for what is perceived to be his humbling of media figures and politicians.
The RMT, along with public sector union Unison and Unite, the largest trade union in the UK, had planned to coordinate strike action at the Trade Union Congress’s (TUC) annual conference, although this has now been postponed, along with strikes planned by the CWU and RMT in September, due to the death of the Queen.
The question remains, what has driven this latest wave of trade union activity? Often cited is the ‘cost of living crisis’, the rising cost of living (namely, inflation of prices for products such as food, fuel, as well as increases in rent and energy bills). They argue that employees’ wages have not kept up with inflation, and that many of their members are financially struggling. Anxiety from union members over declining wages and increased cost of living has animated the current wave of union activity, as well as concerns over working conditions, job stability and working hours. This is evident by interviews with striking workers on the picket line.
Of course it is not just about pay, but conditions as well. Union leaders have expressed worries that the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, plans to review workers protections inherited from European Union law, such as the 48-hour working week (which prevents workers from being forced to work over 48 hours a week, unless they agree to ‘opt out’ by signing a form).
Truss’s belligerent rhetoric during the leadership campaign against Rishi Sunak underlines a more hard-line approach towards trade unions; with policies that make it more difficult to strike proposed. Obviously, this has caused concern amongst union leaders, with the TUC resorting to reporting the government to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an UN agency which focuses on labour law, over these alleged anti-union policies.
A potent combination of rampant inflation increasing living costs and subsequently, a demand for higher pay from workers and mutually bellicose defiance from the government and trade union leadership have created fertile ground for a new generation of labour activism, strengthened further by a rejuvenated trade union movement. Whether or not the strikes will be successful remains to be seen.