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Striking workers protesting for fairer pensions for all
Photograph: Matt Gibson /

Are we living through another winter of discontent?

With around 1.5 million workers expected to take strike action this month, it’s feeling a lot like 1979 again

Ella Doyle
Written by
Ella Doyle

Okay, so pretty much everyone is striking this month. Nurses, teachers, border force officers, postal workers, ambulance drivers and more are taking to the picket line to demand better pay and working conditions. We’ve got a pretty wild month ahead, with postal strikes on Christmas Eve and nurses walking out on December 20. There are also a whole lot of rail strikes, which you can read about here

Across the board, workers are demanding that the government and their bosses listen. And suddenly a phrase is getting thrown around, one we haven’t heard much since 1979: the ‘winter of discontent’. So are we living through another one?

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

What was the winter of discontent?

Between November 1978 and February 1979, there were mass strikes all over the UK. Trade unions demanded pay rises of around 15 to 20 percent, which was far higher than what bosses and the Labour government had been offering as they attempted to curb levels of inflation.

At the height of the strike action, 12 million working days were lost to strikes. In a nutshell, the amount of unrest caused a ton of issues in Britain and the economy suffered. 

What is the meaning of the winter of discontent?

Like many famous phrases, ‘the winter of discontent’ actually originates from a Shakespeare play, ‘Richard III’. It was later used to describe that period in 1979, but sometimes gets thrown around when there is large-scale unrest in the winter months. 

Who is going on strike this month?

Are you ready for the full list? Brace yourselves. Workers walking out (or waiting for ballots to confirm strike action) include train drivers, nurses, university lecturers, sixth-form college staff, ambulance drivers, border force officers, bin workers, teachers, firefighters, postal workers, security workers, train cleaners, driving examiners and civil servants. Phew.

At its peak, it’s expected that 1.5 million workers will be taking part in strike action. 

Why are workers striking this month?

Most workers are demanding better pay from their employers, with most asking for around 15 percent. Many are also asking for improved working conditions, changes to their pension plans and better job protection. Mark Serwotka, of the Public and Commercial Services Union which represents civil servants, said members are ‘struggling to put food on their own tables’. 

Are we having a winter of discontent right now?

It depends how you look at it. If you’re asking whether this strike period reflects the 1979 winter of discontent, then in a word, the answer is no. The UK is experiencing a serious cost-of-living crisis, and many workers are having to resort to using food banks (while not being able to afford to heat their homes).

As the The Guardian has pointed out, the 1970s strikes were drivers of inflation. This month’s strikes are a response to higher inflation (which is now at its highest rate for 41 years) and the cost-of-living crisis. As of today, 741,000 days have been lost to strikes in 2022 so far, and so even if 1.5 million workers do walk out over the next couple of weeks, it won’t be anything near the 12 million days lost in 1978 to 1979 (more than four million people are thought to have gone on strike back then).

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