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Strikes: soaring UK inflation spells an end to industrial inaction

Educators are supposed to set an example. Right now that example is to down tools when living costs rise. Teachers at the Girls’ Day School Trust, a band of 23 independent UK schools and two academies, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of striking. It would be the first serious industrial action in the trust’s nearly 150-year history.

Employees at 58 British universities were ahead of the pack and staged a three-day walkout in December. With inflation at around 5 per cent, more industrial action is on the cards across the UK.

Strikes went by the wayside during the pandemic, thanks largely to government wage support. The Office for National Statistics even stopped tracking labour disputes in 2020. That freed capacity to process pandemic data, but also fitted a narrative — of industrial action declining from the time former prime minister Margaret Thatcher emasculated trade unions in the 1980s.

Some 30mn working days were lost at the height of the winter of discontent in 1979; coal miners’ stoppages brought the annual tally up to 27mn a few years later. The most days lost this century was 1.4mn in 2011. In 2019 — the last documented year — the tally was under a quarter of a million.

Fresh flashpoints are emerging. Inflation, which historically correlates with strikes, is foremost. The cost of living is rising much faster than wages. According to the University and College Union, university staff have weathered a 20 per cent pay cut in real terms over the past 12 years. The GDST’s plans to withdraw from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme will leave teachers “at least 20 per cent” worse off on average in terms of the annual amount in pension benefits, the union says.

Union membership has been creeping up slowly since 2017 to 23.7 per cent of the workforce in 2020. There is a shift towards more members from the public sector compared with the historic strength of the private sector, notes Dave Lyddon, honorary fellow in industrial relations at Keele University. It is here that increasing strike action will be concentrated. But with membership halving in 40 years, there will be no rerun of the 1970s.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of the growing industrial unrest in the comments section below.

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