U.K. Nurses, Emergency Responders and Rail Workers Walk Out
LONDON — As Britain heads into the year-end festivities, the country is enduring an extended period of labor unrest, with unions representing workers such as nurses, rail employees and border control staff members all going on strike at different points in December.
The walkouts come as Britain battles high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis. Many of the strikes are over pay increases, which workers have demanded to combat the rising prices. The disruption to services such as travel and package delivery cut particularly deep during the holiday period, with residents and tourists alike bracing for the effects.
The disruption to services is so intense that the government said it would enlist some 1,200 military personnel to help cover ambulance and border patrol services.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has urged the labor groups to rethink the strikes. “I would really hope that union leaders can see that it’s not right to cause such misery and disruption to so many people, particularly at Christmas time,” he told one British newspaper.
But the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said that the industrial action was a sign of “12 years of Tory failure.”
Here are the workers who will be striking this month and the likely effects of their walkouts:
Thousands of nurses in England, Northern Ireland and Wales walked out on Tuesday over salary and staffing shortages — the second strike this month. Nurses had never gone on strike before this month.
The Royal College of Nursing, the union that represents nurses, has asked for a 19 percent raise. That is above the current rate of inflation, but the union says it is necessary because small increases in the past have made it hard to attract and retain workers.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
- U.K.’s ‘Winter of Discontent’: As Britain grapples with inflation and a recession, labor unrest has proliferated, with nurses, railway workers and others leading job actions across the country.
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- Education: The University of California and academic workers announced a tentative labor agreement, signaling a potential end to a high-profile strike that has disrupted the system for more than a month.
- Electric Vehicles: In a milestone for the sector, employees at an E.V. battery plant in Ohio voted to join the United Automobile Workers union, citing pay and safety issues as key reasons.
The union says it will organize more strikes in January if the government does not enter into talks in the next two days. Government officials have said that pay should be determined by the National Health Service review body, which set a pay increase this summer that was below the union’s demands.
“At the end of the day, this is about the value of nursing,” Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said on Tuesday, noting that many nurses had sacrificed a day’s pay to strike.
Ambulance workers, including paramedics and emergency call handlers, are set to walk out for the 24 hours of Wednesday to protest working conditions and a 4 percent raise that they say constitutes a pay cut in real terms.
The strike comes amid a near-crisis in Britain’s ambulance services, which have already been reporting record wait times and an increased risk to lives. Paramedics also cite staffing shortages and burnout, which have raised concerns about risks to patient care.
The National Health Service in England has warned that “extensive disruption is expected” because of the industrial action. Some hospitals have said that non-life-threatening calls may be redirected and have encouraged people to transport themselves to the hospital where possible.
Employees across the British rail network will strike from Dec. 24 to Dec. 26. Disruptions have already hobbled travelers several times this year as negotiations between unions and rail companies have remained unsuccessful.
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, known as the R.M.T., has demanded a raise in line with the increase in cost of living.
The strikes this month are timed to hit when millions travel to see family and friends or to visit Britain for tourism. Rail companies have warned that services across Britain will be reduced, and in some areas they will cease entirely. Passengers have been advised to check schedules on Christmas Eve to avoid missing the last trains before the public holiday.
Network Rail, which oversees the railways in Britain, has called the strikes “disappointing,” adding that workers rejected an offered pay increase. But Mick Lynch, the R.M.T.’s general secretary, said that the offer was “substandard,” and the union has criticized the government as not doing more to stop the strikes.
Border Force workers
Civil servants and government workers are also set to join the strike action, among them the Border Force workers who staff entry points to Britain at airports and ports. They will strike between Dec. 23 to Dec. 31. The action will affect the country’s busiest airports, including Heathrow, which is facing its own potential strike over low wages beginning on Dec. 29 from its own ground staff. The job action is over a demand for increased salary and job security, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents those working for the government.
The government has said it will train military personnel, civil servants and other government volunteers to stem gaps during the walkout, but said that travelers into Britain should prepare for longer wait times.
Staff members at other government agencies, including job center workers, driving examiners and highway traffic officers, have also announced strike dates.
Other job actions
Postal workers will also walk out on Dec. 23-24, and letters will not be delivered on those dates. Garbage collectors in some parts of the country are also planning a walkout over the Christmas period, while bus drivers in London have planned more strikes into January.