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UK strikes: How soaring inflation is fuelling a 'summer of discontent'

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By Ben Turner
A view of overflowing bins in Edinburgh where city council workers are on the fourth day of strike action (24 August 2022)
A view of overflowing bins in Edinburgh where city council workers are on the fourth day of strike action (24 August 2022)   -   Copyright  Credit: AP   -  

Donning a red vest and flying a union flag, 24-year-old Caitlin is one of the thousands of British workers who have refused to work this summer.

A spiralling cost of living forced the tug boat driver at Felixstowe - the UK's largest port - to join an eight-day strike that is estimated to have disrupted £680million (€795million) worth of trade.

"All we’re asking for is a small part of the port's profits to help us through some very tough and uncertain times ahead," says Caitlin.

Inflation could hit 18 per cent in the UK by next year, according to Citibank, which will see soaring costs for energy bills and everyday goods.

Dock workers like Caitlin, who are demanding a 12% pay rise, are not alone in calling for a better salary to keep up with inflation.

Caitlin Du Plessis
Caitlin, a tug boat driver at Felixstowe port, is taking part in her first ever strikeCaitlin Du Plessis

'Nothing like this since late 1970s'

Bins have overflowed, trains ground to a halt - and criminal courts could sit empty in September as barristers plan to join Britain's wave of industrial action.

The press has dubbed it the "summer of discontent" - a nod to the so-called winter of discontent of 1978-79, which saw almost 30 million working days lost to strike action across public and private sectors. 

"We've not had anything like this since the late 1970s," says Professor Keith Laybourn, president of the Society for the Study of Labour History.

"People are frustrated. Living standards are getting tested. If people are ten per cent worse off then they start asking how they'll pay their bills."

Strike action is not isolated to the UK as other European countries are also seeing growing disruption organised by trade unions.

Railway workers in the Netherlands refused to work this week, bringing the country's trains to a near standstill, while a walkout by airport staff in Germany saw over 1,000 flights cancelled in July.

Yet walkouts in the UK this summer come after a significant lull in industrial action.

In 2017, Britain saw its lowest level of strikes since the 1890s with just 33,000 workers involved in labour disputes.

But by April this year strike activity was already bubbling with pay disputes hitting their highest level in half a decade.

Come the summer and tens of thousands of train drivers, airport staff, barristers, refuse workers, post operatives, dockers and more have refused to work in a bid for better pay.

Success has been limited so far and some unions have rejected pay rise offers deemed to fall below the rate of inflation, such as the 7% offered to workers at Felixstowe port. 

Unions rally despite being weakened

The resurgence of strikes comes despite a period of "union busting" that followed the "winter of discontent" in the late 1970s. 

Dubbed the "Iron Lady", Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party hamstrung unions by bringing in legal requirements for postal ballots ahead of strikes, meaning a show of hands in the workplace would no longer suffice. 

Thatcher also passed a law threatening unions with the seizure of their assets if any procedural rules were broken in around industrial action. 

Union membership -- which stood at 13.5 million in 1979 -- plummeted and today sits at below half of what it was. 

Britain’s frontrunner to be the new prime minister, Liz Truss, has vowed to further step up efforts to disempower the country’s unions.

"I will do everything in my power to make sure that militant action from trade unions can no longer cripple the vital services that hard-working people rely on," Truss said in July.

Public more 'sympathetic' to strikes

Yet with no end in sight to rising living costs, public support for strike action is widening, according to some. 

On Friday, British energy regulator Ofgem announced the annual price cap for energy bills would rise by 80 per cent from October - from £1,971 to £3,549. 

"People are more accepting of strikes because they're in the same situation,” says Professor Laybourn.

"The sudden burst in inflation has created pressure. I think the public has a more sympathetic attitude because people are more broadly affected.”

Trade unions have recently unveiled plans for combined action to increase pressure on the government. 

Unite and Unison, Britain's two largest unions with 2.7million members, are calling for collective walkouts across up to 50 unions in the UK this autumn.