we thought they were gone, the unions are coming back in force in Britain

In Great Britain, the employees of Royal Mail, the now private postal company, are on strike on 2 and 3 November. On 4 November it will be the turn of those from Network Rail – the public entity responsible for the maintenance of the railways – and fourteen railway operators. The next day, the train managers of the Avanti West Coast company take over. Before the resumption of movement in the railway companies on 7 and 9 November, then a strike on 10 November on the London Underground. The start of the mandate of new Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, chosen by the Tories to replace the volatile Liz Truss, got off to a flying start.

Britain is preparing for one “winter of discontent” whom he has not seen for forty years. In recent months, in addition to employees in the railway and postal sectors, employees of the private telecommunications group BT (formerly British Telecom), many airlines, dock workers and lawyers have gone on strike. Firefighters, teachers, paramedics, nurses and coffin makers are preparing for shifts. “We need a rebellion launched two weeks ago Mike Lynch, general manager of RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), the main union in the rail sector. We need a whole wave of synchronized, coordinated action. » Between now and Christmas between one and two million British workers could take part in a general strike.

Salary requirements

The reason for their anger is the refusal of employers, private and public, to raise wages in line with inflation, which has been around 10% since this summer. Rishi Sunak wants to limit the rise in civil service wages to 2%, while wages in the private sector have risen by an average of 6.5% over the past year. At the start of next year, Britons will have an average real wage, that is, that takes into account inflation, the same as in 2003, according to the Resolution Foundation, a think tank specializing in household living standards. Their purchasing power has therefore stagnated over the past twenty years. “It is not wages or workers that have caused this crisis, and we refuse to make workers pay for it,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Britain’s main trade union platform.

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The coordination of trade unions and the many strikes are surprising in a country known for the decline of its trade union movement. The union rate has not stopped melting for forty years. In 2021, 6.7 million Britons were union members, or 20.9% of workers, i.e. half of the peak of 13.2 million union members in 1979. There has been a small recovery since the 6.5 million union members in 2016, the lowest number ever, but it is mainly linked to the drop in unemployment. “Employment has fallen over the last few decades in sectors where unions have traditionally been strongest: coal, steel, portsrecalls Richard Hyman, emeritus professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics. The trend towards privatization and outsourcing of many then-public jobs also limited their organizational capacity. »

Victorian poverty

In 2021, 50.1% of employees in the public sector were unionized and only 12.8% in the private sector. “Margaret Thatcher did much to legally limit the ability and influence of unions recalls Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, professor at London’s Birkbeck University. For example, there are almost no branch agreements in the private sector anymore. Everything is now negotiated at company level. » The current revival is primarily due to the trade unions’ new ability to demand support from the majority of the population. They found in Mike Lynch a leader capable of “present the members’ motives in a clear, understandable and popular way”explains Richard Hyman, who “can’t remember ever seeing a British trade union leader as effective as he was.”

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For Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, the impoverishment of the British also makes the trade unions’ discourse more audible. “With the sharp fall in real wages, people understand that the unions are trying to stop this general decline and that they are acting in the best interests of all” analyzes the researcher. In recent months, 14% of Britons have been forced to skip meals due to lack of financial means, according to a TUC survey of members. A rate that explodes between 24% and 29% for residents of the poorest districts of Birmingham, Dundee or Glasgow in Scotland. “If we fail to raise wages across the economy and ensure social benefits rise in line with inflation, we risk heading towards Victorian levels of poverty.”warns Frances O’Grady.

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