Workers' strikes will test PM Sunak

There is no right to strike under UK law, but industrial action, including strike action, is legal and protected if it follows the rules laid down in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Mon 12 Dec 2022, 8:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 13 Dec 2022, 7:47 AM

A walk along Oxford Street, Regent Street or any area of London’s West End is something of a master-class in the themes that drive globalisation. Last week I went to Knightsbridge, near Harrods, to meet a friend and it turned out to be a repeat of the experience I’ve been having for at least a decade now. Leave aside the larger themes of capitalism, the cultural politics of shopping, or the poetics of space and transport in a global capital. To me, what stands out is this: it is quite a challenge to walk through masses of people along narrow footpaths, and the conversation: you can hear almost every language and every accent – Hindi, Tamil, Arabic, east European, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi and others – except English, particularly in the high-end shopping areas that attract hundreds of thousands of tourists with deep pockets.

It seems like a parallel universe, a snapshot of wealth in the context of poverty, particularly at this cold, grey and grim time of the year, when it gets dark around 3.30pm and most people prepare to go through the tough winter. This year the challenge for millions of Britons is bigger: it is difficult to find who is not planning to go on strike in the coming days and weeks, with Christmas round the corner. Teachers, junior doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, immigration officials at airports, train drivers, Royal Mail staff, university lecturers, baggage handlers at Heathrow, bus drivers in London, driving test examiners, civil servants – they have either announced strike action or are in the process of doing so.

The demands are mainly about pay, which brings into focus another theme that adds to the woes of many Britons this year: the crisis caused by high energy costs when an Arctic snap plunges temperatures below 0 degrees, the ever rising cost of living, and supply chain issues due to Brexit.

There are reports of people having to choose between meals and heating homes, and increasing numbers of people making a beeline at food banks, where people unable to afford basics can collect subsistence food and some items. There are also growing numbers of ‘warm spaces’ across Britain, where charity and other organisations offer refuge to those who cannot afford to heat their homes. Pubs and restaurants have also been reporting mass cancellations of bookings for Christmas and New Year parties to the levels seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, adding new challenges to the viability and existence of their businesses.

The chill is evident at various levels, reminding many of the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79, when public and private sectors workers went on widespread strikes across the country.

A random selection of front-page headlines puts things in perspective: ‘Don’t fall ill, don’t rely on trains and forget sending Christmas cards: Week of strikes holding Britain hostage’; ‘Strikes will see 15,000 operations cancelled’; ‘Christmas cards won’t arrive until February’; ‘Misery on the railways every day for a month’, ‘NHS winter crisis erupts after years of warnings’.

Launching the Guardian and Observer’s Charity Appeal 2022 to tackle the cost of living crisis, editor Katherine Viner wrote last week: “I have spent much of the last few months feeling furious, and I know many readers have too: a rage driven by the fact that in the sixth largest economy in the world, there are so many children going to school hungry, so many families sitting freezing in the cold. Right now, people in Britain are being forced to skip meals. They are too scared to switch on the heating…A charity appeal may seem like a drop in the ocean in the face of such hardship. Charity alone can never make up for the damage inflicted by years of government austerity, the hollowing out of public services, widening inequality, or the gaping holes in the UK’s social security safety net. It is no substitute for better, fairer, kinder policies”.

There are little signs of resolution in talks between unions and the Rishi Sunak government, amidst claims that the government is seeking a Thatcher-style confrontation with the unions, in the belief that the prime minister and the Conservative party will reap a political reward (unions are close to the Labour party, whose funders include large unions). Thatcher famously won the 1979 election in the backdrop of mass strikes when it was argued that the unions were ‘holding the country to ransom’. There is similar talk by ministers in the Sunak government, as it plans to bring tougher laws next year to prevent strikes, while critics accuse the prime minister of misreading the mood of the nation.

There is already a bill going through parliament: the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. Introduced by the short-lived Liz Truss government, it has had its first reading in the House of Commons, but is in a state of limbo, with ministers planning to toughen its provisions. The bill is intended to pave the way for the introduction of minimum levels of service on transport services, like those already seen in countries, such as France and Spain. It is expected to ensure that specified transport services – such as rail, tubes and buses – will not completely shut down when unions impose strikes, to balance the right to strike with ensuring commuters can get to their place of work and people can continue to make vital journeys to access education and healthcare during strikes.

There is no right to strike under UK law, but industrial action, including strike action, is legal and protected if it follows the rules laid down in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The rules for legal industrial action include requiring the balloting of trade union members before action, and the reasonable notification of both the ballot and industrial action to employers. The law protects workers who are peacefully protesting, communicating or persuading people to abstain from working at or near their workplace, but does not protect any violence, intimidation or harm to persons or property.

A remarkable aspect of the current situation is that there is no backlash from the British public facing the inconvenience of strikes and constant news about strikes. Based on anecdotal evidence and comments on social and mainstream media, the vast majority of people appear to be sympathetic to the demands of nurses and others professionals going on strike or planning to do so. The fact is that it is increasingly costly to just get by in today’s Britain.

Is the Sunak government wrong in its approach to the strikes? It is already grappling with major challenges to the economy, insisting that agreeing to the demands of the unions will increase inflation and cost nearly 30 billion pounds. Sunak taking over as the prime minister in October following the collapse of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss governments was supposed to be a return to normal politics, even if boring, but the next days and weeks of winter will be a serious – even defining – test of ‘brand Rishi’ ahead of the May local elections.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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