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“Summer of discontent”: why the UK is rocked by a historic strike movement


The UK is experiencing one of its biggest strikes in decades, amid rampant inflation. The movement, carried by the sect

Far from the summer torpor, England is bubbling.

Since the beginning of the summer, the country has experienced one of its biggest strikes in decades, hitting the railway sector, but also that of law, post and maritime transport.

Railway workers, lawyers, dockworkers are struggling to obtain a decent raise, allowing them to counter the inflation which continues to progress in the United Kingdom.

This rate now exceeds 10% over one year, and could even reach 13% in October, according to forecasts by the Bank of England.

“The price increases affect the energy sector, gasoline, but also the food sector.

We have seen the cost of basic necessities such as bread, flour, cereals soar.

There is real suffering in homes with several social classes affected, ”says Sarah Pickard, lecturer in contemporary British civilization at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and author of “British Civilization”.

More than 40,000 railway workers on strike

At the end of June, the fear of seeing 1,800 rail jobs disappear prompted the unions to hold the picket line.

The movement continued, counting more than 40,000 railway workers on strike across the country by the end of July.

“Rail is a historically very unionized and combative sector, but rather accustomed to carrying out occasional strikes.

Today, such a movement on a national scale had not been seen for 30 years”, remarks Marc Lenormand, lecturer at Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier and specialist in social movements in the United Kingdom.

This Thursday again, the country is experiencing a new salvo of massive walkouts in transport, but also at the post office, in ports or within the judicial authorities.

In the middle of school holidays, only one train in five is running this Thursday in the country.

Other actions, brought by telecom operator employees, garbage collectors and Amazon handlers are planned in the coming days.

The British trade unions, which have long suffered from the Thatcher years, would like to see this as a turning point in their history.

A turning point for British trade unionists?

Some speak of a "summer of discontent", referring to the "winter of discontent" of 1979, marked by a paralysis of the country following strikes in factories and the public sector.

At the time, British trade unions had 13 million members, before the years of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher marked a historic break in the social climate.

Standing up to the miners (1985-1984), the Iron Lady introduced two laws to restrict the right to strike.

A union now has the obligation to organize a vote of its members to trigger a walkout.

A particularly restrictive process for larger companies.

Finally, it prohibits "solidarity strikes", in other words, postal workers do not have the right to stop working to support the garbage collectors.

A crowd gathers in support of the months-long miners' strike outside the Trades Union Congress conference room in Brighton on September 3, 1984. PETER SKINGLEY / AFP

“Since then, these social restrictions have been reinforced by successive conservative policies.

The unionisation rate, which is the majority in the public sector, has never been so low in the United Kingdom”, notes Sarah Pickard.

The culture of work stoppages collapsed and the “Trade-Unions Congres” would have only 7 million members left.

A figure that could fall further as job cuts threaten the public.

Public support

The strikers, however, have an advantage, judges the academic.

“The unemployment rate does not reach 4% in the country.

Employers therefore need labor to run their business.

This situation can reverse the balance of power in favor of the unions, ”says the professor.

Proof that the voice of workers carries, the British, especially the youngest, would be more inclined to defend their movement.

According to a poll conducted at the end of June, 45% of those questioned support the strike in the trains, against 37% who oppose it.

Questioned by the BBC, a journalist present in a slow-moving Leicester station on July 28, did not hide “her surprise” to see “no citizen” openly criticizing the social movement.

"In this context of inflation, the British are showing much more understanding of the suffering experienced by workers," says Sarah Pickard.

— Trades Union Congress (@The_TUC) July 27, 2022

Being long-term, the movement could weaken the ranks of the Conservative Party, already busy orchestrating the succession of Boris Johnson.

Lizz Truss, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, approached to join Downing Street, said she wanted a ban on mass strikes in certain sectors.

A provocation that does not seem to affect the "determination of the workers", as the very media-savvy Secretary General of Transport, Mick Lynch, has been claiming for weeks.

A "weakening of the workforce"

The standoff with the government is engaged.

But it does not mean the “renaissance” of union activity, nuance Marc Lenormand.

“It's hard to imagine a massive unionization movement like back then.

The precariousness of work, the weakening of the workforce, tasks paid by the hour are all factors that complicate the defense of common interests”.

How far will the movement then extend?

After transport, the strike could win the civil servants of education and health, whose union recently tackled a "miserable" salary increase of 4%.

More than 115,000 British postal workers have planned another four days of walkout between the end of August and the beginning of September.

An “autumn of discontent” is already taking shape.

Source: leparis

All news articles on 2022-08-18

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