UK summer of strikes signals resurgence of union strength


LONDON — It was an eerie sight, lawyers hitting the bricks in their black silk robes and white jabots and horsehair wigs.

A glimpse of what’s to come this summer – and what’s already happening here – as, emerging from the stagnation of a pandemic, Everybody wants more money. From an ethical point of view, it is acceptable to make requests now, according to the prevailing opinion, especially in the public sector. It’s been called the Summer of Strikes, and it certainly won’t be just a British phenomenon, as workers across the G20 countries, including Canada, will seek to ease the constraints imposed by two years of COVID.

The Criminal Bar Association has warned that their profession faces an « existential crisis » due to insufficient funding. Lawyers – mostly lawyers who defend people in court, as opposed to lawyers who do legal work outside of court – are demanding a big pay rise after they turned down the government’s offer of a 15% pay raise. fees.

« The criminal justice system is falling apart, » a lawyer said at last week’s solidarity protest outside the Old Bailey. « Cases are not moving forward because there are not enough lawyers, not enough judges, not enough criminal resources. »

This is not unlike the complaints filed by lawyers in Ontario after the provincial government cut funding to Legal Aid Ontario by 30% in 2019, most severely affecting defendants in need who could not no longer have access to a lawyer. Beyond that, the pandemic has created a huge backlog of court cases, as it has in the UK. A London woman on trial for murder was told by a judge last week that she would have to appear in court because no lawyer was available, believed to be a legal first. The accused was not satisfied with her initially appointed legal representative, which prompted this person to go on bail. But because of the lawyers’ strike, no other lawyers were allowed to accept the case.

This is just a specific consequence of workers in all fields that impact daily life seeking fair compensation, but especially unionized workers. They wield a more powerful hammer.

Railway workers, teachers, airline workers, doctors, nurses, postal workers, subway drivers, firefighters have all hit the picket lines before in a rotating “industrial action” – as the strikes here – or made it known they intended to then.

Last week the railways union held its third strike, bringing the vast haulage to an abrupt halt, with only the Heathrow train operating on a reduced timetable – from an airport thrown into chaos by hundreds of canceled flights (such as at Toronto) due to staffing, capacity is collapsing amid an increase in travel by an emerging public from travel restrictions and striking pilots in some European countries.

The Transport Secretary has insisted the railway strikes have not been as effective as hoped, largely because the public has learned to deal with inconvenience during COVID shutdowns and restrictions, a large part of the population still working remotely with satisfaction. An estimated 90% of office workers in the capital stayed home on the first day of the strike, with a separate London Underground strike as well.

“Despite what the (railway union) may claim, we have not seen the level of overcrowding on buses or the heavy congestion on the roads that some feared because the world has changed,” the secretary said. , Grant Shapps. « Many more people can now work from home. »

Yet it is the biggest rail ‘industrial action’ in the UK since 1989, which was a catastrophic failure for the union at the height of Thatcherism, in a merciless attack on workers’ rights. work by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, from whom all the unions are still trying to recover. And this may be their time.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, beset from all sides and even from within Tory ranks for the government’s serial blunders, scandal-piling scandal and sky-high cost-of-living increases, has claimed he will not There was « no point » in increasing wage increases because it would drive prices even higher, causing a new upward spiral in inflation that has already reached a 40-year high.

Johnson threatened to allow employers to use scabs to replace the 40,000 railroad workers.

The demands of the railway workers are quite reasonable: increases that are in fact below inflation levels and protection against « compulsory layoff », with railway bosses claiming that only modernization – read, close countless stations and a reduced payroll – can save the rail network from ruin.

The government will have to pay $17 billion a year to meet the 7% raises that most public sector workers are seeking. The Treasury told these workers that they should instead expect increases of around 3%, across the board. “At a time when you have inflationary pressures in an economy, there’s no point in having wage increases that just cause further price increases,” Johnson said. “I know people will find it frustrating, but I have to be realistic with people about where we are. We must ensure that we make the sensible and responsible decisions to have the strongest possible economic recovery. »

The Bank of England has warned that inflation will exceed 11% by October. Meanwhile, the railway strike could last until Christmas.

Labor, however, has powerful tools beyond the strike – it’s a post-pandemic labor market, with employers desperate to fill jobs left vacant because so many employees simply haven’t returned to work. the workplace or have changed professions. And there is considerable public sympathy for striking workers, including those in the public sector who generally find negligible support on the streets and have been so heavily blamed for the union muscle that facilitated Thatcherism as a draconian correction. Only around a quarter of workers in the UK are now unionised.

A recent opinion poll by Savanta Market Research found overwhelming support for the strikers, with even 38% of Conservative voters responding that disruptive rail strikes are “justified”.

Everything points to a resurgence in the weight of the unions amid a “wave of resistance” among workers and a growing alignment with the concept of the redistribution of wealth. In the latest UK Social Attitudes Survey, 64% agreed that ‘ordinary people are not getting their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ – up from 57% in 2019. Discontent is palpable, especially in a society as locked in classes than Brittany.

A low-wage economy is simply not sustainable, as a post-Thatcherite UK and post-runoff US have discovered. In America, manipulated blue-collar resentment played a powerful role in the election of President Donald Trump.

It’s going to be a long, hot, angry summer.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist who covers sports and current affairs for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno



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