Britain was in the grip of its worst industrial strife for more than 30 years even before the rail network and postal service ground to a halt over the festive period.
Some 467,000 working days were lost to strikes in November, a 10-year high, after a wave of walkouts caused by the most severe cost-of-living crisis in a generation. Days lost over a six-month period reached the highest level since 1989-90.
The Office for National Statistics said the transport, communications, and education sectors drove the industrial unrest with pay disputes intensifying in December and January. Health service, postal and rail staff have walked out over pay in recent months with more strikes planned — including teachers, bus drivers, and civil servants — for the coming weeks.
EXPLAINER: Why Strike-Averse Britain Is Gripped by Labor Unrest: QuickTake
“The period since June has now seen more days lost than in any six months for over 30 years,” said Darren Morgan, the ONS’s director of economic statistics. Over 1.6 million working days have been lost since June.
The number of hours worked fell by 1% in the quarter, partially caused by industrial action as the UK government and some other employers struggle to agree on pay deals with unions. It came as pay – both including and excluding bonuses – fell by 2.6% year-on-year in real terms after wages failed to keep pace with double-digit inflation.
“In the context of ongoing cuts to the standard of living, industrial unrest is likely to continue for some time to come,” said Helen Gray, chief economist at the Learning and Work Institute. “The figures do not currently include the wave of strikes seen across the public sector in December and January.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has put forward new legislation to crack down on the strikes as industrial action causes widespread disruption to public services in the UK. The bill plans to introduce minimum service levels in certain sectors to limit the disruption, including rail and ambulances.
More train driver strikes were announced by the union Aslef for early February on Tuesday despite growing optimism of a deal with rail workers being neared in recent weeks.
“We want a constructive dialog with the unions, and the public have had enough of the constant, most unwelcome, and frankly dangerous, disruptions to their lives,” Business Secretary Grant Shapps said Monday.
However, that ambition faced fierce criticism from the opposition in Parliament. Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, called the bill, “one of the most indefensible and foolish pieces of legislation to come before this House in modern times.”
“They are burning the freedoms for which we fought for centuries and are handing to ministers unprecedented power over the individuals who are targeted,” she said.