The United Kingdom has seen a lot of turbulence in history, from Wilhelm the Conqueror to War of the Roses, but it has not seen such a mismanagement and political immaturity during the democratic rule ever. Even Margaret Thatcher did not risk dissolution of the kingdom while materialising her neoliberal orthodoxy. But as we can see, the Tories are able to push the bar of their own dementedness even higher and higher. 

The UK is moving towards the biggest social crisis in history.

Food banks, strikes, bills higher than ever, lack of workforce in the NHS. The Brexit drama was just a prologue. With Prime Ministers being impeached or moved aside by the Tory Party, constantly moving to the right – these are the key artefacts creating the scenery of this Greek traged. It might have also been the perfect foundation of a Shakespearean play about power and greed. 

But this is not a play. It is a real life.

Employment, unemployment and the lack of workforce 

But first let’s take a glance at the data.

As we can see in those reports from the Office of National Statistics: “growth in average total pay (including bonuses) was 5.1%, and growth in regular pay (excluding bonuses) was 4.7% among employees in April to June 2022. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), growth in total and regular pay fell in the year from April to June 2022 at 2.5% for total pay and 3.0% for regular pay; this was a record fall for regular pay”. What’s more “average weekly earnings were estimated at £611 for total pay, and £568 for regular pay in June 2022”. But all of this in July and June was stopped because of the inflation – which has, according to official data, reached the level of 8-9 percent. The popular feeling, however, is that the proper number should have two digits.

When it comes to public sector employment: “Total public sector employment increased in March 2022 compared with the previous quarter and the previous year; the increase from a year ago is largely because of the ongoing response of the NHS and the Civil Service to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. There were an estimated 5.74 million employees in the public sector for March 2022, which was 21,000 (0.4%) more than for December 2021 and 67,000 (1.2%) more than for March 2021”. But the main problem is the number of vacancies, the number of them raised due to Brexit. 

As we can read in one of the reports: “In May to July 2022 vacancies were 478,800 (60.2%) above their January to March 2020 pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) level and 309,500 (32.1%) above the level of a year ago”. 

What’s at the first glance positive is the low rate of unemployment: “3.8%, which is 0.1 percentage points higher than the previous three-month period but 0.2 percentage points below pre-coronavirus pandemic levels”. While: “The UK employment rate was estimated at 75.5%, which is 0.1 percentage points lower than the previous three-month period and 1.0 percentage points lower than before the coronavirus pandemic (December 2019 to February 2020). What’s more, reports say that “The UK economic inactivity rate was estimated at 21.4%, which is largely unchanged compared with the previous three-month period but 1.2 percentage points higher than before the coronavirus pandemic”. 

According to British media, the NHS is in need of 38,972 vacancies of nurses. This is a slight increase from the same period the previous year when the vacancy rate was 9.2% (34,678 vacancies). What’s more, The NHS has long carried a stubbornly high number of unfilled vacancies, a problem dating back to pre-pandemic times. As of March 2022, over 100,000 posts in secondary care are vacant, more than 8,000 of which are medical posts.

Staff shortages have been only growing in the NHS under the Tories governments. This has been driven by inadequate workforce planning and lack of government accountability – including insufficient funding and infrastructure to train enough new doctors. This problem has  been snowballing since Brexit on the 1st of February 2020, and has been even strengthened by COVID-19.

The same goes for vacancies in the infrastructure industry. The British railway is recruiting new workers, without saying how many of them are actually needed. At the same time, the striking railway workers alarm that the industry is facing the threat of… redundancies. Would the new employees be hired on much worse conditions than the workers of today? We can only guess.

The British Airlines is also looking to recruit cabin crew after staff shortages forced it to cancel around 1,200 flights since the start of this year. BA let around 10,000 staff go during the pandemic, when international travel was subject to tight restrictions. Lorry industry also is under a lot of pressure, according to the Road Haulage Association’s (RHA) survey of its members estimates there is now a shortage of more than 100,000 qualified drivers in the UK.

Costs of living crisis 

The Office for National Statistics declared that inflation as measured by the consumer prices index rose from 9% in April to 9.1% last month, a level last seen in February 1982, and the highest rate in the G7 group of wealthy nations, and the highest in the last 40 years of UK history. What does it mean, and how can we combine those digits with the date shown above? The Bank of England says that the United Kingdom – I would rather not call it Great Britain any more – is heading into a financial crisis much longer and deeper than the one of 2008. Why? Because as we know the latter happened after years of economic growth. After all this one comes after 14 years of payment stagnation and very anaemic growth. With the prologue of pandemia and the new chapter called war in Ukraine and skyrocketing gas prices. 

As it was put by Aaron Bastiani from Novara Media:

“While the cultural default before the late 2000s was to assume that things were generally getting better, today anyone younger than 31 has never worked in an economy with sustained average wage rises. Ahead of us is the third major recession in less than a generation, with Britain’s economy now expected to be no bigger in 2025 than it was in 2020”. 

What’s more Bank of England forecasts show that the inflation is going to be higher and higher, with around 13-14% at its peak. But this data tells us nothing without the context it is playing in. 

As Bastiani puts it:

“In the last decade-and-a-half, the average British household has become comparatively poorer. Between 2007 and 2018, the Resolution Foundation concluded that average disposable incomes, adjusted for purchasing power, fell by 2% in the UK. Meanwhile, in France, they increased by 34% and in Germany by 27%”.

The political elite of the United Kingdoms seems to give a blind eye for the poor and whole body for the rich.

If we adopt the retail price index (RPI) – used in the 20th century – which includes much more factors such as level of interest on loans and their repayment the situation is far worse, by the end of the year prices will be 18% higher compared to the last year. All of this in a completely privatised environment of gas companies, railway systems and even water delivery – yes, water is privatised in Wales and England, thanks to the action of Margaret Thatcher in 1989, according to various reports private companies waste everyday the equivalent of water that could be used by 20 million people, 83% of Englishman is in favour of renationalisation). 

Right now more than one in five of the UK population (22%) live in poverty – this is 14.5 million people. And in the May 2021 State of Hunger report, the Trussell Trust estimated around 2.5% of all UK households (700,000) used a food bank in 2019-20, prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Right now this number should be much bigger. What’s more the energy bill for an average household will increase by around £1,600 to over £3,600, according to the most recent forecasts. Only around one in 13 people (8%) thought that bills will go up by more than £1,500 – which is what experts predicted, and also energy companies are privatised. 

As Aaron Bastiani concludes:

“older voters might insist on telling us how bad the 1970s were. But between the first quarters of 1974 and 1976, following the oil shock, the share of household income spent on utility bills rose by 0.7%. By contrast, that figure is set to rise by 3.5% between the start of 2021 and 2023. In other words, the unfolding energy crisis is set to be around five times harsher for consumers than the supposed dark old days of yore”. 

Response of the establishment

For Liz Truss, who is one of the two fighting to become the next prime minister after the mixture of Boris Johnson’s scandals, the answer for all of that is lowering taxes. At the same time the Labour Party wants to  lower the VAT on the energy bills. So where is the difference one might ask? Starmer right now is putting on the table ideas which are not so different from the one of the establishment. 

This is the exact opposite of the policy that was applied after the 2008 crisis in the United Kingdom, when the stream of cheap loans avoided a deeper recession. Here, as many point it out, not only Aaron Bastiani, increasing the cost of credit, along with spiralling energy and food prices, is likely to perpetuate the recession. 

Moreover, tenants will not be immune as landlords are pushing up rents even more (last year London saw a record increase) to reflect rising borrowing costs. Having a large number of people living in buy-to-let properties, with owners on cheap credit, may have seemed like a good idea in the last few years but somehow at the point of this decade, the market and the whole idea could fall apart.

“The working class is here and isn’t going anywhere” 

Mike Lynch, support by Eddie Dempsy, has shown that the unions can be militant and can be much more active in the politics. In the era of social media it is often state that the whole political process has turned into tweets and hyper condensed media cycles where the action takes place at your fingertips. But this is not true, especially in the case of events of this magnitude that we are about to witness.

A hot union summer is developing in front of our eyes, giving more and more arguments for possible general strike in the autumn, and changing of the policy of The Trade Union Congress, but also more and more industrial actions in the countries of Europe. For instane, France which is now preparing for the wave of strikes at the beginning of September. 

So who’s striking right now, and who will join the picket lines? And are on the horizon any new forms of protest? 

The first ones are the avangard of the current strike wave, leaded by Mike Lynch and Eddie Dempsey, rail workers from RMT, accompanied by – after long but succesful negotioans –  the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA). What’s interesting here is that it is the first time in a generation that all three specialist rail unions are taking part in industrial action at the same time. The demand of RMT is about a pay rise of between 7% and 8%. At the beginning they were offered a 2% pay rise by Network Rail, with 1% more if they accept job cuts and so-called “modernisation” – which the union claims will make conditions for workers and passengers unsafe. Network Rail have since the beginning of the strike come back with an improved pay offer, which the RMT have rejected. Aslef union members are also fighting for the paytrise, meanwhile TSSA rail workers in Network Rail and Southeastern have voted to take action over pay, conditions and job security. 

Railway workers on strike in July 2022. Source: Nick Oung archive.

The RMT strike began in June, when 40,000 workers went on strike, stopping 80% of national rail services. The last walk out took place on the 27th of July. The next walkouts are going to take place on 18th and 20th of August. Aslef members at Greater Anglia went on a 24-hour strike in early July, and have further strike action planned for 30 July.

The next are BT Group plc engineers and call centre workers, organised by the Communication Workers Union (CWU). It is the first national strike of the BT workers in 35 years. They wanna go on  strike over pay rise. This year BT group gave employees a £1,500 per year pay rise, the CWU says this is a “dramatic real-terms pay cut”  against rising inflation. Which is lightning true if we compare it to the fact that last year, BT’s chief executive Phillip Jansen received a 32% pay increase, taking his salary to £3.5m. Their strike action took place on 29th of July and 1st of August. The next strike wave is now in preparation since the company didn’t meet the demands of workers. 

Teachers and education system

Another looming strike is the one of the teachers in England and Scotland, members of the National Education Union (NEU). Right now the NEU is issuing an initial indicative ballot to gauge willingness to strike, followed by a formal ballot. If members vote in favour of strike action, it will take place in autumn. The reason why they want to strike is once again pay. The union representatives say that teachers have lost 20% of their pay in real terms since 2010. The NEU is instead demanding an “inflation-plus” pay rise. It is highly unlikely that the government will meet their demands. 

The other part of the education system is also going on strike. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) work at all levels of the higher education system in the UK. The reasons are pensions, pay, workloads and casualised contracts. Potential action would be 10 days of strike over cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a higher education pension scheme with over 400,000 members. Pension cuts – which came into force in April 2022 – saw the average teacher lose at least 35% from their retirement income. To avoid strike action, UCU wants pension cuts scrapped and for a new “evidence-based” valuation to be carried out, but also this is highly impossible watching the attitude of the government, which is leaning to the far right. The UCU calls for a minimum pay rise of £2,500 for all staff, and action to address wage inequality, casualised contracts and excessive workloads. If the balloting will be successful the strikes will take place late summer and in November. 

At the same moment according to Novara media: “39 colleges across England, via three separate ballots. In the largest, staff at 29 colleges across England returned an 89.9% yes vote, on a 57.9% turnout – apparently the “biggest mandate for industrial action” since the threshold was introduced in 2016”. They are going to be supported by six colleges from London. And also, as we can read in the article: “they will be joined by four colleges in the north west, across Liverpool, Burnley, Manchester and Oldham, who will be taking further action after initial strikes in May 2022”. 

They are fighting for the pay increase that would match the inflation. According to UCU study published 8 July found that eight out of 10 FE staff are economically insecure, with workers reporting they are imposing restrictions on heating their homes and using hot water. A quarter of FE workers said they are skipping meals due to financial precarity. The actions will take place on 6th and 7th September at Burnley College, The Manchester College, City of Liverpool College, and Oldham College. The 35 of the colleges have not yet declared the dates of their strike action. However these strike actions can be avoided if the government will meet the demands of the workers, which in this case is possible.

Infrastructure  

British Airways has its own problems. Their workers are organised by Unite and the GMB. The dispute is over a 10% pay cut imposed at the peak of the pandemic. The BA says it has offered a 10% one-off payment, which is a joke in the face of the workers, because they know that the BA managers have had their pay returned to pre-pandemic levels. They want to reverse this 10% cut permanently. 95% of the staff backed the action, which was planned for late summer and early autumn. But right now BA came back to the negotiation table with a “vastly improved”. The members of the unions have to vote if they will accept the deal. 

The postal workers of Royal Mail Group (privatised) 115 000 of them, organised in the CWU, have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike actions on 19th of July, with a 97,6% of votes YES on a 77% turnout. They want to fight over higher pay rises. The RMG wants to impose a 2% increase, but they say it is not enough. RMG claims it has offered a 5.5% pay increase, but that this has been rejected. CWU wants to come back to the negotiating table, so there are no strike dates so far. 

Don’t Pay UK 

But there is also a new type of action called Don’t Pay UK, the action is focused on not paying the energy bills in October this year, while the average energy bills are projected to rise to over £3,500 in October. At the same time, energy companies count their profits in billions. This action can be a game changer, of course the juridical system will not be able to cover 10 000 000 people who won’t pay their bills, this is the number declared by the organisations of the action. A lot of people on their twitter account or facebook groups claim to take part in it. But the situation is too shaky right now to say something more about this action. But the one thing is clear during the last two weeks: the action is gaining momentum in the media and on public social platforms. We will see what October will show. 

Of course, this list of industrial actions is far from extensive. There also strikes in Amazon magazines and a wildcat strike in Scotland at Major Oil Refinery.

What is more, we can see a counter-movement also on the side of the establishment. Anti-union laws are being prepared – they will be described in the next article focusing on the establishment strategies. 

But what is point blank clear here is that the working class is awakening and it’s going to march through British cities louder and louder. There is no saviour from austerity and exploitation here – but a working class fighting for its rights. 

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