Factcheck: are UK strikers greedy, unrealistic and putting others in danger? | Industrial action

After ministers rebuffed an offer by nursing unions to suspend strikes in return for new pay negotiations, and with Cobra meetings due on Monday to work through controversial contingency plans involving the military, there is little reason to expect a reprieve from planned strikes.

Industrial action already under way in December among bus, rail and postal workers will intensify and broaden this week to others in the public sector including ambulance drivers, baggage handlers, and driving examiners. The result will be some of the most significant disruption to the British economy in recent memory.

The strikes are a response to limited pay rises set against a backdrop of sharply rising inflation that the TUC says has left key public sector workers £180 a month worse off than a year ago. They have been met with a barrage of criticism that casts strikers as irresponsible, selfish and unrealistic. So how do the following claims compare with reality?

‘This is effectively a general strike’

Thousands of striking workers and their supporters attend a rally at Kings Cross station called by the UCU on 30 November 2022 in London, England.
Thousands of striking workers and their supporters attend a rally at King’s Cross station called by the UCU on 30 November 2022 in London, England. Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

This is looking increasingly like a general strike” – Stephen Glover, Daily Mail, 7 December

“It’s almost like a de facto general strike taking place by the amount of disputes” – Dave Ward, CWU general secretary, 3 December

Everyone agrees that industrial action in the weeks running up to Christmas will have a significant impact. But claims from both sides that the whole economy will grind to a halt in a “general strike” exaggerate the parallels with the past.

As this explainer from Philip Inman sets out, it used to be possible for the TUC to coordinate a general strike without ballots in each area. But now the law bans strikes without a successful ballot in an individual workplace.

It might still be possible for a “de facto general strike” to happen if enough industries succeeded in bringing industrial action at the same time. But union representation in the UK since the winter of discontent in 1978 and 1979 has fallen significantly, from about 50% in 1979 to about 23% in 2021, although it is still about 50% in the public sector. The reality of the 1979 comparison is made clear in Richard Partington’s piece from 8 December, which points out that while the number of working days lost this year could reach 1.74m, in September 1979 alone, 12m days were lost.

‘Striking workers are being greedy and their demands are unaffordable’

“Where is [Rishi Sunak’s] big effort to mobilise the country against these greedy union extremists?” – Douglas Murray, the Sun, 8 December

“Inflation-matching or inflation-busting pay rises are unaffordable … There simply isn’t the money.” Transport secretary, Mark Harper, Sky News, 27 November

Critics of striking workers often present their pay demands as excessive in a time of economic difficulty. But in this analysis from July, Ashley Kirk sets out Office for National Statistics data that shows real public sector pay has fallen by 4.3% since the 2009 financial crisis. Meanwhile, the IFS says, real private sector pay has risen by 4.3% since 2010. New analysis published by the TUC today says that 2022 has been the worst year for real pay growth for almost 50 years.

Pay demands should also be set against the impact of inflation, which is quickly eroding the value of even generous-sounding settlements. For example, an offer to rail workers described as “8%” in a Daily Telegraph headline on 4 December is spread over two years, making it 4% in reality, against the most recent inflation figure of 11.1%.

One way to get at the question of affordability is to examine the government’s claims of the cost to taxpayers. Rishi Sunak claims that it would cost about £1,000 extra per household to give pay rises offsetting 10% inflation this year. But Ben Zaranko, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, points out in this BBC Reality Check piece that once you factor in the 3% average pay rises for public sector workers already budgeted for 2022-23, the real “extra” cost is about £640 per household, about a third of which would be returned in tax.

The question of whether a bit over £400 per household is affordable – with the greatest burden falling on the richest – is ultimately a political judgment. We can also ask whether it is true, as is often claimed, that pay rises will stoke inflation. This piece by Richard Partington yesterday argues that fears a “wage-price spiral” is under way are overplayed. The Bank of England estimates holding overall wage growth to 2.5% could reduce inflation by 1.5 percentage points – “a drop in the ocean” compared with the impact of soaring energy prices.

‘NHS strikes are putting people in danger’

Ambulance staff
More than 10,000 NHS ambulance staff from nine NHS hospital trusts in England and Wales will strike on 21 December in a dispute over pay. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

“[Ambulance staff] joined the service to save lives, not put them at risk” – Conservative MP Mike Penning, Daily Mail, 6 December

“It will cause pain and discomfort for people and put lives at risk” – Whitehall source, Daily Express, 6 December

One common theme of coverage of planned strikes by nurses and other NHS workers is a possible risk to patient safety – and there will clearly be some discomfort or delay as a result of the action. But it is another step to suggest that lives will be put at risk.

The “life-preserving care model” that guides Royal College of Nursing industrial action excludes emergency interventions to save lives or prevent disability from strikes as well as other situations where lives could be put at risk. Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, has urged urgent clarification on exemptions but told the BBC strike days would “feel like a weekend or bank holiday”.

The evidence from previous strikes suggests that it is possible to take industrial action without jeopardising safety. An article in the Independent, published in August, pointed to a 2018 BMJ study which found no measurable impact on mortality during junior doctors’ strikes in 2016, although it added that there were fewer A&E admissions and attendances. A strike in Northern Ireland in 2019 ended with “no adverse incidents” for patients, the RCN says.

‘Negotiating is out of the government’s control’

“My role is to facilitate and support – not negotiate.” – Mark Harper, letter to RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, 29 November

“The essential discussions have to occur between the rail operating companies, Network Rail and the unions.” – work and pensions secretary Mel Stride, TalkTV, 23 November

Government ministers say that they stay out of negotiations, and that their hands are tied by independent pay bodies – with the government yesterday refusing the nursing union’s request to negotiate for that reason. But there are reasons to be sceptical about that account.

On Thursday, the FT reported that employers had planned to offer the RMT a 10% pay rise over two years, only for the government to intervene. The eventual offer was 8% over two years, tied to the introduction of driver-only trains. That was not denied by the Department for Transport, while the FT quotes an “industry figure” as calling the intervention a “clumsy mis-step” that exacerbated the situation.

‘The public opposes strikes’

“The put-upon public are turning against militant unions set on ruining Christmas.” – report in the Sun, 6 December

“Civil servants shouldn’t expect sympathy for their strikes from the working taxpayers who pay their wages.” – John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, 10 November

Opponents of strikes naturally wish to present themselves as the voices of ordinary working people. But the reality of the polling is more complicated.

Last week, for example, a YouGov poll found that only 37% of people supported striking rail workers, against 51% opposed. But an Observer poll found 40% blaming the government and rail companies, with 37% holding unions responsible – and also showed big majorities supporting nurses.

If that picture is mixed, that is probably worse news for the government than unions, who certainly want public backing but ultimately answer only to their membership. The battleground now is whether the reality of strikes in the run-up to Christmas turn voters against the unions – or reinforces the sense that industrial action is part of a wider picture of government incompetence.

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