Following decades of slumber, 2022 was the year that saw Britain’s trade unions wake up. Against the backdrop of soaring living costs and falling real wages, union membership grew, and workers took strike action to demand higher wages in numbers not seen for a generation. The year also saw trade unions assert themselves on the national stage, with trade union leaders becoming popular figures voicing the frustrations of the nation.
So as 2022 draws to a close, it is worth looking back at the year in strikes—and at what next year might hold.
Living costs were rising above wages even as the year began, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered soaring inflation, quickly eroding wages and pushing workers to the brink, setting the stage for a year of disputes.
The spate of strike action—or threats to strike—by HGV drivers that began in 2021 continued into 2022, with drivers, often represented by Unite, taking advantage of a driver shortage accentuated by Brexit and the pandemic to win inflation-busting pay rises. Bus drivers, too, seized the opportunity presented by high trade union membership and a tight labour market, winning inflationary pay rises in local authorities across the country.
The refuse worker strikes that spread across local authorities towards the end of 2021 increased to more than a dozen separate disputes. In many cases, workers won the pay increases they had demanded but often only after protracted industrial action. In the public sector, where trade unions were negotiating with local authorities, resolutions were reached, in contrast to disputes where the government had a direct influence.
Then, in March, P&O Ferries illegally sacked its 800-strong crew without notice, busing in a mostly foreign replacement crew on less than the minimum wage. Shortly after, the company’s CEO told MPs that the company intentionally broke the law because the financial penalty for doing so would be less than the crime would save, effectively saying they expected to get away with it—and he was right. Company bosses escaped criminal prosecution or any meaningful penalty, exposing how Britain’s rogue employers are allowed to operate above the law, as well as the uneven playing field faced by workers.
In May, the 400,000 rail workers represented by the RMT voted for strike action across 15 train operating companies and Network Rail in a dispute over pay and plans to impose detrimental terms and conditions, kicking off the ‘hot strike summer’. The righteousness of the rail workers’ demands—that they receive an inflationary pay rise and that the railway be protected from cuts—resonated with the public, as did the union’s General Secretary Mick Lynch, whose media appearances taming the nation’s most obnoxious television and radio hosts became regular viral sensations. The RMT’s plainspoken case for pay rises and against economic inequality inspired hope and turned the dispute on the railway into a bellwether for the trade union movement.
The RMT may have been the first union out of the traps in terms of a major industrial dispute, though they were soon followed by the CWU, whose members at the Royal Mail smashed the ballot thresholds against a real terms pay cut and plans to break up and Uberise the postal service. The dispute, covered extensively in Tribune, intensified over the year, with 115,000 workers striking over Black Friday and Christmas. In turn, management took steps to derecognise the CWU as a workplace union altogether, with neither side showing signs of backing down.
At the end of July, 40,000 CWU members employed by both BT and Openreach walked out in a dispute over pay, the first large-scale industrial action in BT Group in 35 years, before settling the dispute in December after winning a pay rise, including above-inflation rises for some of the company’s lowest-paid staff. The RMT and CWU may not be among the biggest UK unions, but 2022 saw them play an outsized role in their ability to organise their members and impact the national conversation on pay.
Meanwhile, outsourced hospital workers in Lancashire and South Cumbria achieved an unlikely and inspiring win in their dispute. Represented by Unison, staff staged 26 days of strikes starting in June, and by November won a 14% pay rise, an extra week of annual leave, and the same sick pay as their in-housed colleagues. It was a victory against the practice of outsourcing which contributes to chronic low pay and insecurity.
Then, starting in August, workers represented by Unite at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, Britain’s largest container port, took advantage of the critical role their work plays in the nation’s economy, staging a series of walk-outs in August and September, resulting in a 8.5% pay rise plus £1,000. Dockers in Liverpool were also out in September, supported by solidarity not only across Britain but by longshoremen and dockers as far afield as the US, Spain, and Denmark. Their dispute ended in November with a pay rise of between 14.3% and 18.5%.
On the back of a decade of increasing casualisation and falling pay in higher education, October saw the UCU become only the third union in the UK to win a national strike ballot since the introduction of the anti-union laws in 2016, with 70,000 staff at 150 universities beginning strike action in November over attacks on pay, working conditions, and pensions. Low pay and casualisation in education isn’t unique to universities and nor is industrial action: teachers at 29 Further Education (FE) Colleges and 77 Sixth Form Colleges have been taking industrial action since November. And with NASWUT and the NEU balloting school staff, most of the education system could be in dispute by early next year.
The Royal College of Nurses soon became the fourth trade union to beat the threshold requiring a majority of members to vote for strike action with over 50 percent returning their ballots. However, UNISON failed to meet the threshold in their ballot, demonstrating the effectiveness of the anti-strike laws.
Representing 300,000 nurses—around two-thirds of NHS nurses—the RCN’s call for nurses’ pay to be restored after falling by more than £5000 in real terms since 2010 has been met with overwhelming support from the public and insults and hostility from the government. Minister Nadhim Zahawi’s response to the union’s demands to end low pay that has nurses relying on foodbanks and which has caused a staffing crisis threatening patient safety was to accuse nurses of ‘playing into Putin’s hands’, with the government refusing to negotiate on pay.
Motivated by similarly dramatic falls in pay and fears for the future of the NHS, nurses were joined by ambulance drivers after more than 10,000 GMB members voted to walk out in a pay dispute, with strike dates in December. The postponement of scheduled Christmas strike days into January demonstrated the difficult balance unions face between causing maximum disruption to their employers and keeping the public onside.
The Year Ahead
Looking ahead to 2023, the wave of strike action shows no sign of abating. Teachers, firefighters, and junior doctors are balloting, the nurses’ and paramedics’ disputes are set to continue, while rail workers and posties face intransigent employers who are seemingly prepared to trash their industries before acceding to pay demands.
The unprecedented support for striking workers has been a remarkable feature of the year, with the likely explanation that a nation suffering the longest squeeze on real wages since Napoleonic times can empathise with the minority of workers with the tools to do something about it. Whether the unprecedented levels of public support is sustained as disruption increases and disputes drag on remains to be seen.
It will also be interesting to see whether strike action spreads into the private sector in significant numbers. Thus far, industrial action has taken place largely in the public sector or recently privatised companies, where trade union membership is most concentrated (fewer than a quarter of workers are members of a trade union, with public sector employees five times more likely to be a member).
Statistics released earlier in the year showed trade union membership was growing, albeit slowly and from a low base. Whether the increased visibility of trade unions will translate into a significant uptick in members, particularly in the private sector, is a question that will be answered in the months ahead. For the trade union movement to seriously reshape politics, it must extend its influence in the private sector, though the barriers to trade unions are formidable and unions are battling against a political economy designed to exclude them from power.
The prospect of yet more anti-strike legislation in the form of the government’s Minimum Service Levels Bill presents a significant threat. At a time when the trade union movement is undergoing renewal, it may face the fight of a lifetime as the government attempts to pass new laws to conscript trade union members into breaking their own strikes, making strike action ineffective.
With the most anti-trade union government in decades and a fence-sitting opposition, trade unions have taken on the mantle of protecting working people from a vicious assault on their living standards. Whether the movement can grow in power and stature over the next year will not only determine the extent to which ordinary people can combat the cost of living, but whether there will be a platform from which to agitate for meaningful political change in the years to come.