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Number of days lost to strikes hits highest level since the 1980s, here’s why

Nick Cheek
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Nick Cheek

Nearly four million working days have been lost due to industrial action in the last year, according to research from a UK think tank.

That amounts to more days lost through strikes than at any point since the 1980s. Resolution Foundation’s quarterly outlook examined the ongoing strikes and high vacancy rates in the public sector.

It reported that the frustration at lower weekly pay in real terms was a key factor in the action. This is evident particularly for those in publicly-funded industries, which account for 69% of all trade union memberships and 96% of all working days lost to strike action since 2021.

Real-terms pay cut key factor

Due to high inflation, the national average weekly pay for all workers fell by 4.1% in real terms. But public sector workers have felt this disparity the hardest, with a 9.1% decrease in their real-terms pay in the three months leading up to May 2023, compared to the same period in 2021.

That percentage rose to a 9.8% decrease in pay for public sector workers in health and social care such as nurses and junior doctors.

The last two years has seen trade unions for rail workers, nurses and teachers negotiate with the Government over their pay and working conditions, with varying levels of success.

Working conditions a key issue

Although the teachers’ unions accepted a new pay deal in early August, rail workers, junior doctors and nurses are yet to resolve their disputes.

As well as wages, the think tank found that working conditions, exhaustion and on-the-job stress played an important part in the industrial action too.

Nye Cominetti, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, commented: “The recent strikes from teachers and junior doctors reflect the fact that real-terms public sector pay has fallen severely in the past few years, as well as the stress and difficult workplace conditions frequently reported by workers in these sectors.

“However, the inflation-driven pay squeeze should also be understood as part of a broader pattern of poor pay growth across both the public and private sectors, and falling pay satisfaction among public sector workers.”

He added: “Going forwards, the Government will need to balance fiscal caution with the need to provide a level of pay for public-sector workers that reflects the very real difficulties faced by workers in these sectors, and ensures that vacancies in these sectors continue to be filled.

“In addition, there should also be a renewed focus on improving pay and working conditions for workers in essential sectors like social care, that are largely not unionised, but which are still experiencing the effects of job stresses and pay squeezes.”