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A protest showing signs 'Support the Strikes'
Photograph: JessicaGirvan / Shutterstock.com

Four British workers on why they’re going on strike this month

We spoke to a nurse, a bin worker, a bus driver and a lecturer who are heading to the picket lines

Written by
Chiara Wilkinson
&
Ella Doyle
Contributor
Glendalys Medina
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Train drivers, nurses, ambulance drivers, bin workers, postal workers, teachers, border force officers, sixth-form college staff, firefighters, security workers, train cleaners, driving examiners, university lecturers, civil servants. Union members in all of these professions (and more) are either going on strike this month or waiting for the results of ballots to decide if they will also walk out. The scale of this industrial action seems uncomfortably similar to the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ which took place between November 1978 and February 1979. But it’s not the 1970s, it’s 2022, and here we are. 

From healthcare workers to train drivers, large-scale strikes will be taking place in the run-up to Christmas on an almost daily basis. At its peak, it is expected that around 1.5 million workers could be at the picket lines. And who can blame them? As millions of us face a cost-of-living emergency, the majority of walkouts are calling for better pay and working conditions, yet negotiations between unions, employers and the government are stuck in a deadlock.

With an already bleak festive period starting to look even bleaker, we speak to four workers about why they’re going on strike this month. 

The bus driver

‘With crazy shifts and long driving times, we don’t see any other way to change what’s going on’

‘I work for Abellio, a bus company based in Battersea which runs services on behalf of Transport for London. I’ve been working here for the past four years and things were actually okay when I joined. But as time went on, things got more expensive and our wages stayed the same. If any of our passengers knew what it’s like being in the driver’s seat, believe me, they’d understand why we’re protesting. Because of the number of changes we’ve had in the past few years, with crazy shifts and long driving times, we don’t see any other way to change what’s been going on. Our responsibility is huge: it’s not only our own safety, it’s everybody’s.

‘Drivers need to get decent treatment – and I mean the whole package. Job benefits, pay and decent schedules. The big bosses need to really look at what’s been happening over the past few days and look at their drivers. You know we are the base of this industry, right? We need to come to an agreement, then carry on working. Let’s not take this any further.’ George McGloughlin*, bus driver, London

More than 950 bus drivers employed by Abellio in south and west London are taking ten days of strike action, on November 22, 25 and 26, and December 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 16 and 17.

The nurse

‘How are you supposed to look after someone else if you’re terrified about looking after your own family?’

‘I’ve been a nurse for six years, and was a healthcare assistant long before that. It’s a privilege to be a nurse. Every day you meet somebody different and you make a difference in someone’s life, and that’s amazing. Not everyone can say that. But it’s hard work. You leave the house at about 5.30am, and there’s already a queue of patients outside the door before you open. And then you power through a 12-hour shift until 8pm, but if there’s somebody sick, you’re staying. And then you do it all again the next day.

‘We’ve had a real-terms pay cut for a long time now, but the government offering a rise of 3 percent is well below the current state of inflation – and we’ve finally got to the point where we can’t survive on goodwill and cups of tea any more. We’re literally at breaking point. Recently a patient wanted to give us a thanks for looking after his mum when she was poorly, and the nurse asked if they could donate some tins to the in-house food bank for staff. Because the nurses need the food bank. How are you meant to look after someone else if you’re terrified about looking after your own family? Most nurses I know are putting in extra shifts. I’ve got one friend embroidering pyjamas for the extra cash, for God’s sake.

‘The decision to strike has been horrendous, because the last thing we want to do is leave our patients. But patients aren’t receiving the care they need at the minute because there’s not enough of us, and there will never be enough of us unless there’s fair pay. All we want to do is provide the care we are experts at. I think the government think “ah, they won’t do it”. But we are doing it. It’s happening.’ Sarah Jackson*, nurse, north-west England

Up to 100,000 nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be taking part in strike action on December 15 and 20 this year. They’re asking for a pay rise of inflation plus 5 percent.

The university lecturer  

‘I stand to lose more than £100,000 in retirement because of changes to our pensions’

‘I’ve been in academia for almost ten years. I love my job – if only I got a chance to do it on terms that were acceptable. There are crushing workloads and many more students in the classroom than ever before, which is really hurting the quality of education. People are reporting that they’re working 50 or even 70 hours per week. There are also big gender, race and disability pay gaps.

‘It’s becoming increasingly unaffordable for people to enter the profession and a lot of people are thinking about leaving. The real-terms value of our pay has fallen by 25 percent since 2009. This year, they’ve offered us a 3 percent rise, when inflation is more than 14 percent. On top of all of that, our pensions have been cut by 35 percent – on top of lots of cuts since 2011. If we don’t roll these back, I stand to lose more than £100,000 in retirement. What’s more, Queen Mary University has said if we don’t reschedule our missed classes due to strike action, they will indefinitely dock our pay until we do. People are being threatened with weeks, if not months of pay deductions, for just three days of strike action.

‘For me, striking is a no-brainer. It’s a few days of lost income and while there’s disruption, it’s about the long-term health of the sector. We’ve had really good attendance at our picket lines so far, the mood is very high, and there is good support for the strikes among the student body. We always say that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. But if there aren’t any reasonable proposals from employers soon, there could be more strikes. I’m hearing people talking about indefinite action, potentially into next year. At the moment, we feel like we’re being insulted. Something has to change, otherwise we’re heading to some serious disruption.’ Dr James Eastwood, lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London

More than 70,000 staff at 150 UK universities took part in strikes on November 24, 25 and 30, asking for a 13.6 percent pay increase and a reverse on retirement revisions introduced this year. A further 58 universities were hit with three days of strike action on December 1, 2 and 3.

The bin worker

‘Some lads I work with are having to use food banks while bosses are being handed huge rises’

‘I’ve been in the trade for 30 years. It’s a smelly job, but somebody’s got to do it. It’s early mornings, the bins are packed and we load them into the truck. You get a lot of spray back – “bin juice”, we call it – all the sloppy stuff. Cars fly past you on the pavements. When we’re working, people turn and look at us and say, “How do you do that job?” And I’m like, this is recycle week. You wanna smell it on green week!

‘Covid is what really changed things. We’re striking for better pay, but it’s not really about the money. It’s about how we’ve been treated. We were actually supposed to strike a few years ago in 2020, before the pandemic hit, because of low pay. But then the pandemic came about, so we called it off. We wanted to support the public and the nurses and that during lockdown. You know half the people anyway, the oldies especially, because you do their bins every week. We couldn’t do that to them, so we carried on.

‘But the company took that as weakness, and they forced us into a pay freeze later that year – so we’re still earning around £11 an hour like we were during the pandemic, even with the rate of inflation. And now with the cost-of-living crisis, there are lads I work with who are using food banks. I’m in my fifties, and I feel ashamed they’re having to do that. That’s why I’m striking for a 15 percent increase in line with inflation. Ultimately, Biffa is a company with a lot of money, and we know the ones at the top have had huge pay rises – some of them 68 percent higher than the average salary. And we have workers needing to use food banks? The strikes are taking place from December 5 to 10, and if it doesn’t get resolved, there’ll be more in the new year. So we’ll see what happens.’ —John Smith*, refuse operative for Biffa, Merseyside

Around 200 workers employed by Biffa on the Wirral council contract, including refuse, street operatives and HGV drivers, are going on strike from December 5 to 10, asking for a 15 percent pay increase.

*Some names have been changed

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