UK lost nearly four million days to strike action in past year, study reveals

New report lays bare squeeze facing workers as public sector job vacancies up by a third and real-terms pay plummets

Andy Gregory
Monday 14 August 2023 00:18 BST
Members of the PCS union, teachers and supporters pictured at a rally in Whitehall in February
Members of the PCS union, teachers and supporters pictured at a rally in Whitehall in February (Getty Images)

Nearly four million working days have been lost to industrial action in the past year, according to new analysis, which finds that the strikes sparked by soaring inflation and years of stagnating pay are Britain’s most intensive since the 1980s.

As workers battle with the government and private employers to ease “severe” real-terms wage cuts, the extent to which key sectors have ground to a halt – at times, literally – has been further evidenced in a new report by the Resolution Foundation.

Published as junior doctors continue a four-day walkout, the think tank finds that sectors including health, education, postal services and railways have been responsible for 96 per cent of all days lost to strike action since 2021.

Laying bare the squeeze facing workers, the report found that real-terms pay in the three months to May was 4.1 per cent lower for all workers than in 2021 – with that hit deepening to 9.2 per cent for those in the public sector, and to 9.8 per cent in health and social care.

Correspondingly, this appears to have contributed to an increase in job vacancies – with the number of available roles in health, education and public administration 33 per cent higher in March than in December 2019, and up 23 per cent across the rest of the economy, the report found.

Industrial action has been waged on a scale not seen for decades in the past year, with walkouts hitting the NHS, railways, airports, schools, universities, postal services, civil service and the media industry, among others.

In public sector pay battles, Rishi Sunak’s insistence that granting workers’ demands would further fuel inflation means his government has continued to take a tough line, despite opposition MPs warning of the strikes’ impact on an economy already dicing with recession.

Ministers have frequently been accused of failing to properly negotiate with unions, while often bizarrely seeking to use the chaos to score political points against the Labour Party, despite Sir Keir Starmer’s visibly less-than-sympathetic stance on the matter.

Keir Starmer dodges question on how he'd handle NHS strikes differently

Meanwhile, the government’s anti-strike legislation finally passed into law last month, despite several defeats in the House of Lords.

But although ministers have now finally agreed pay settlements with several groups, including nurses and teachers, industrial action is still being waged on several fronts, including by junior doctors and rail workers, with the latter marking the first on a national scale since the 1980s.

“The recent strikes from teachers and junior doctors reflect the fact that real-terms public sector pay has fallen severely in the past few years, as well as the stress and difficult workplace conditions frequently reported by workers in these sectors,” said Nye Cominetti, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation.

“However, the inflation-driven pay squeeze should also be understood as part of a broader pattern of poor pay growth across both the public and private sectors, and falling pay satisfaction among public sector workers.

“Going forwards, the government will need to balance fiscal caution with the need to provide a level of pay for public sector workers that reflects the very real difficulties faced by workers in these sectors, and ensure that vacancies in these sectors continue to be filled.

“In addition, there should also be a renewed focus on improving pay and working conditions for workers in essential sectors like social care, that are largely not unionised, but which are still experiencing the effects of job stresses and pay squeezes.”

Additional reporting by PA

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