The summer of discontent or the tumultuous return of strikes in Great Britain

Great-Britain [1] has seen a wave of strikes the likes of which it has not seen for decades. Strikes at the railways, logistics, the Felixstowe port terminal and the Royal Mail are taking place against an economic and social backdrop of record profits, a political crisis, soaring inflation and an upcoming recession. The wave of spontaneous strikes in a dozen Amazon warehouses was perhaps the most unexpected moment of this ‘Summer of discontent’ [2] .

In this article, we want to bring to the attention to the return of the strike as a major social fact, and this in a country that has experienced a long period of “forced social pacification”. Having briefly outlined the contextual elements in the first section, we will describe the main conflicts in the second section. We will then develop some thoughts about the continuation of strike mobilisations in the coming months. The fourth point deals with the question of the end of a long period of pacification of social conflict, by considering the possibility of long cycles in strike activity based on the change in structural and organizational coordinates that determine its intensity. Finally, we will conclude by drawing up a series of general observations.

1 – British singularities under stress

In the United Kingdom, industrial relations are voluntary and poorly regulated, although, conversely, strikes are highly regulated. There are no employee representative bodies, which is why the term ’Single channel’ is used [3] . The legislator recognized the trade union fact within the company very early on (1872), while at the same time granting the right to organise a peaceful picket (1875). In 1906, trade unions were given the right to strike without being liable to a conviction for damages. The Trade Unions Council (TUC) is a direct product of Chartism, which was born in 1838 [4] . Initially, it brought together 180 trade or professional unions. Unlike other countries where revolutionary traditions predominated, the TUC took the lead in political action by founding the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which in turn founded the Labour Party. Political representation was a necessary complement to the essentially ‘economic’ trade union action. During the inter-war period there was a great deal of social conflict, culminating in a single general strike in 1926. After the Second World War, the trade unions and the Labour Party succeeded in making major improvements to the living conditions of the working class. In addition to the creation of a universal social security system under the aegis of William S. Beveridge, with health services accessible to all, financed from taxation, the country experienced two decades of relative full employment (for men) with a powerful public industrial pole and an expanded offer of social services (particularly in terms of housing).

Wage formation is highly decentralized in Great Britain. From 1945 to 1986, it was organized on the basis of wage negotiations within the Wages Councils, which covered trades and professions on a territorial basis with appointed representation of employers and employees. The Wages Councils drew up an indicative scale of hourly rates, minimum thresholds according to seniority and qualification (Dobb, 1952).

After their abolition in 1986, wage bargaining lost much of its importance. At the same time, in some cases (transport, energy), it has been maintained at sectoral level to avoid excessively high or dumping wages. Over the recent period (2000-2020), in the private sector, only 20% of wage increases were the product of collective bargaining, compared with 45% in the public sector. The creation of an hourly minimum wage (1998) – quite exceptional given the British tradition – was justified by the extent of the impoverishment of workers, with almost 25% of employees in poverty.

From 2010 to 2020, wage increases have been very moderate, consistently falling below the annual growth rate of GDP. Over this decade, median weekly earnings (in real terms) increased by only 0.6%, while average weekly earnings fell by 2.4% in real terms if the past decade is taken as a benchmark. The important increase in 2021 is mainly the result of furlough system ending after several periods of lockdown.

Annual change in real wages (adjusted for inflation) / source ONS UK

Last April, the Times asked whether the country would experience a summer of discontent. This signaled that some in the cenacles of power were already beginning to become aware of social exasperation. The number of social conflicts had begun to increase since 2020, during the pandemic. Initially marked by health issues, the strikes very quickly put the question of wages on the table. Last May, there were at least 300 industrial disputes since the beginning of the year; a number six times higher than the annual average for the period 2008-2018, which expresses a real break with the long period of atony in social conflict.

Wages are at the heart of these strikes for a very simple reason. In April 2022, the Chartered Management Institute [5] revealed that half of all companies had not planned any pay rises, while in the other half the increase would be no more than 3%, less than half the rate of inflation at that time. According to the same survey, in the public sector – where the unionization rate is 50% compared to 14% in the private sector – the wage increase would not exceed 2% in 2022.

Britain has had a long period of wage stagnation starting in 2008 during the financial crisis. But this period was also characterized by low inflation averaging between 1.5% and 2%, and this changed abruptly at the end of 2021. Initially, in the fall of 2021, the price increase was the result of a relatively sharp economic recovery from the confines of the pandemic. The year 2021 was also marked by a major disruption in road transport, notably due to a shortage of lorry drivers, partly linked to Brexit. In this context, prices were rising steadily and inflation was already reaching 5-6% by the end of 2021. The disruption of global value chains, further amplified by the insular context of the UK economy, pushed inflation up to 7-8%. Then, in June this year, following the rise in electricity and gas prices linked to the war in Ukraine, inflation crossed the 10% threshold.

The price surge coincided with repeated announcements of extraordinary profits for the year 2021. Profit margins for listed companies (FTSE 350) were 73% higher than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Profits for these companies jumped by 11.74% in the six months from October 2021 to March 2022. Over the same period, labour incomes rose by only 2.61%; and fell by 0.8% after accounting for inflation. This recent surge in profits accounts for 58% of the inflation in the last six months, compared to only 8.3% for labour costs. Unite sees this as excess profits generated from higher prices and monopoly rents [6] . So it is not just about oil companies or a few ‘rotten apples’. Even excluding energy companies, the profits of FTSE 350 companies increased by 42% between 2019 and 2021.

The combination of the three realities – wage moderation, (excess) profits and inflation – has become an explosive cocktail. Faced with criticism, including from his own camp, Boris Johnson decided to grant each household an energy voucher of £400, financed by a tax on the ‘excess profits’ of energy producers [7] . The measure, quite ‘radical’ for a neoliberal conservative, awakened the social conscience of the working classes. At the end of July, further price increases were announced, raising the annual energy bill by £3,000 to £4,000. In a country where many working people either own run-down homes or rent social housing, higher energy prices would spell social disaster. Economist Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York says that a £400 voucher will not prevent 80% of households from falling into ‘fuel poverty’, defined as 10% of disposable income spent on energy [8] .

Faced with this reality, several unions engaged in consultation procedures, which British law made necessary in order to call for strike action.  As a symptom of social exasperation, participation rates in these consultations systematically exceeded 80%, while the vote in favor of strike action sometimes reached 90% or 95%, reflecting a real determination to take action to obtain wage increases. It is worth noting that the existence of a strike fund is certainly helpful when disputes arise. Employees earning more than £30,000 can get up to £50 a day, while for low earners earning less than £30,000 gross, the amount can be as much as £75 a day. Union density in the private sector has fallen below 30% over the past decade, but in large companies and public services it remains at 50%.

2. Strikes are back

Here we present the emblematic conflicts in rail, logistics, postal services and dockers. Other, more local conflicts also took place. But these conflicts, which are just as well attended as the national strike conflicts, do not contain national issues that make the return of the strike a separate issue.

When the rail strike sets the ball rolling

The railworkers were the first to embark on a nationwide strike affecting the entire rail sector. Having not experienced strikes since 1989, rail transport had all the characteristics of a managerial Eden. Privatized in 1990-1991 with some fifteen separate national operators, the sector is also fragmented by the outsourcing of a large number of technical and commercial services. But this fragmented reality has not prevented the RMT union from campaigning for centralized or national bargaining on pay issues. With 50,000 members or adherents, the RMT remains a rather ‘militant’ union with a presence on the ground, including external contractors such as cleaning services. It disaffiliated from Labour when the latter embarked on a ‘third way’ approach similar to social liberalism. Alongside it is the 22,000-strong ASLEF union[9] , which organises train and underground train drivers, and the TSSA, an independent trade association not affiliated to the TUC, which organises staff of some regional service providers and which has opened up to the tourist transport sector[10] .

At the end of May 2022, ASLEF and RMT refused to accept an increase of 3%, which is much lower than an inflation rate of 9-10%. For the unions, a 7% increase was the necessary condition for opening negotiations. In response to this refusal, Network Rail agreed to a 5% pay rise, but this was conditional on accepting a reorganization of services and an increase in working hours. RMT and ASLEF rejected this ‘sweetheart deal’ and began preparations for strike action. After a well-attended consultation process, with a very high turnout of 78% and 90% of voters in favor of strike action [11] , more than 60,000 employees in the sector stopped work, first on 21 June, followed by a second strike day on 27 July, a third on 20 August and finally on Saturday 1st of October, in a first joint strike with other sectors.

The rail strikes have received support from large sections of the public [12] . A poll of 2,000 people [13] at the end of July found that 63% are against job losses and do support strikes. The same percentage believe that rail workers should receive a pay rise ‘that takes into account the cost of living’, while 59% believe that rail workers have the right to strike when negotiations fail. More broadly, 85% of respondents believe that the profits of the rail industry should be invested in protecting jobs and improving service quality. Public opinion remains broadly supportive of strike action, which is consistent with the support for re-nationalization of the sector that has been prevalent for the past decade.

On each day of the strike, all services were paralyzed, including in London. In an attempt to divide the movement, employers said they were prepared to concede an 8% pay rise, but only for certain trades. Mick Lynch, interviewed on Skynews on the 1st of October, said it was unacceptable that some trades were being discriminated against in the face of rising inflation, which was affecting everyone and was now in excess of 10%. On that day, after 15 days of mourning following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, a new national strike took place and other actions have been announced since then. The social movement is therefore still ongoing and far from losing momentum.

The highly symbolic rail strikes illustrate the return of trade union action to the forefront. They signal the return of the strike as a form of struggle. Their symbolic exemplarity is verified by the fact that workers in other companies have followed suit, even in companies without a union presence such as Amazon.

Wind of revolt at Amazon

At the beginning of August, the logistics giant experienced a wave of spontaneous strikes affecting a dozen sites, mainly sorting and order-picking warehouses (Fullfilment centres). It all started on the morning of 3 August at the LCY2 depot in Tilbury, south London. After receiving information that the hourly wage would only be increased by 35 pennies [14] , about 600 workers walked out and gathered in the hall. Over the next few days, walkouts took place in Rugeley, as well as Coventry, Swindon, Rugby, Doncaster, Bristol, Dartford, Belvedere, Hemel Hempstead and Chesterfield.

These wildcat strikes were distinctive in that they were both majoritarian and spontaneous, and represented a social event not seen since the 1970s (Darlington& Lyddon, 2001) [15] . Although the actions were supported by Unite and the GMB, in practice they were more self-organized by informal networks of colleagues. The actions took a wide variety of forms, ranging from stopping work while remaining at one’s workstation to slowing down the pace (slow down strike) or occupying loading bays or the canteen (sit-down strike).

All these actions are about the issue of wages. Amazon is a company that refuses to talk to a union representative, leaving the human resources department to act alone on this issue. A striker testifies that the anger has been brewing for some time:

‘Normally, salary increases are notified in April. In July, there was still no information, which added to the impatience. The announcement of a 35 penny increase was seen as a cold shower as everyone was expecting a real pay rise. Previously very low, close to the legal minimum of £8.50, the starting salary had been increased last year to £10.50, if not £11.45 depending on the employment area. Mind you, this decision was not inspired by any sense of generosity; Amazon was just trying to become more attractive in the job market. Recently, after the pandemic, Amazon had had the greatest difficulty in recruiting 25,000 workers… Internally, this increase in the hiring salary fed the hope that all categories would get an upward adjustment. In a context of inflation but also of record profits – £210 million, a 20% increase on 2020 – and net of tax, it is obvious that management’s refusal to grant a real increase was bound to provoke social discontent. This spread like wildfire from 3 to 12 August, with strikes and walkouts taking place in almost all fulfilment centres’.

Several strikers stressed their indifference to management’s threats. Their refusal to give in to intimidation, to respond to injunctions to return to work, even when he is waving a deduction from wages in case of an open strike, i.e. the entire interrupted working day, seems to have been a widely shared reaction:

‘We only decided that morning that we were going to walk out. The management was completely clueless. They first threatened to withhold our wages, but we held out and stayed in the canteen all day. We asked the management representative for an explanation. Why are they giving us a handout when they have increased our starting wages by £2? Why couldn’t they raise our wages to the level of inflation, when the money was flowing. But Amazon’s UK management remained silent and the local managers didn’t know what to do… They were completely baffled. In the end, after several days of stalling, management conceded a 50 pence per hour increase while announcing a wage adjustment in the coming months; this got the work going again.’

The GMB union is following up these strikes with a campaign for a starting wage of £15 an hour and an inflation adjusted pay rise. This offensive stance reflects the union’s desire to use the walkouts to gain the status of social interlocutor that Amazon has always refused [16] . But according to Callum Cant, author of Riding for Deliveroo. Resistance in the New Economy (2019) and a leading expert on the logistics sector, Amazon will certainly try to re-establish its managerial grip and do everything it can to keep the unions out of the warehouses. However, for the specialist, it is inevitable that workers will continue to ‘become aware of their strength’.

Dockers cross their arms

On 21st of August, it was the turn of the dockers at Felixstowe to enter the fray. Located near Ipswich, Felixstowe is the largest port terminal and accounts for half of the country’s annual port activity. The first strike lasted 8 days and mobilized the 1,900 dockworkers, all trades combined: bridge operators, crane operators, handlers, technicians, etc. During the consultation prior to the strike, 9 out of 10 workers were in favor of a work stoppage, paralyzing the entire port activity.

The owner of the Felixstowe terminal is CK Hutchison Holding, Li Ka-Shin, Hong Kong’s richest businessman and the 32nd richest man in the world, whose accounts are domiciled in tax havens. CK Hutchison is the world’s leading port terminal operator, owning 52 terminals in 26 countries with a turnover of $30 billion. Once again, the issue of wages is at the centre of the conflict. Having not been increased for a decade, while the British division has announced record profits – $95 million in 2021, compared to $64 million in 2020 – the dockers have given vent to their anger.

Following this strike, the first since 1989, the port company’s management is proposing a 7% pay rise with a one-off bonus of £500. But for the Unite union, the increase should be at least 10% and in line with inflation, in contrast to what was conceded during the 2010-2020 period, a period of low inflation it is true. According to Sharon Graham, ‘CK Hutchison’s terminal is making such a profit that it would be possible to increase wages by 50% without putting the accounts in the red. It is not unreasonable to demand a 10% increase.’

In early September, faced with the union’s refusal to accept a below-inflation increase, the port terminal manager decided to close the door on negotiations. Since then, the management has been waging a media campaign against the Unite union and the dockers, pointing to the high salary of a docker – around £50,000 a year – while explaining that strikes will cause prices to rise.

For Unite’s representatives, wages have been frozen for a decade while price increases are the result of higher rates charged by shipowners who have seen their profits triple by 2021. The disorganization of maritime transport particularly affects the British Isles and since 2021, only one in five container ships has arrived on time. For the Unite trade unionists, blaming the price increase on the dockers’ strike is a bad joke: ‘We’ve gone from just in time to just in case, which only makes prices more expensive with delays here and penalties there.’

It should perhaps be recalled here that the entire global flow of goods is affected by chaotic disorganization: either factories are shut down in China, or there are no more container ships available, or they are diverted because there are no time slots to unload containers in less than 48 hours. Felixstowe is often the last terminal before leaving for Asia empty. In case of congestion, ships unload their containers in Antwerp or Rotterdam rather than waiting offshore. These containers then have to be transported across the Channel, lengthening the supply chain and pushing up the final price. The retail sector has increased its storage capacity to avoid stock-outs. But by ordering more goods, it has only added to the chaos and pushed prices even higher.

The union’s refusal to accept a below-inflation increase turns the dockers’ strike into a test case. At the end of September, it was the turn of Liverpool dockers to strike for a week. On 29 September, the Felixstowe dockers embarked on a second week of strike action, supported by the Southampton dockers who refused to unload goods diverted from Liverpool or Felixstowe.

For Treasury Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the dockers’ strikes are a form of social terrorism ‘which must be prevented by all means’. In the same vein, Liz Truss, the new head of government who recently joined Downing Street, said she believed that the 1973 law banning the use of temporary workers during strikes should be repealed as soon as possible. Her recent statements express the will to attack again the right to strike with a panoply of restrictive measures such as the extension of the notice period from 2 to 4 weeks, the limitation in time of the validity of a vote in favor of a strike or the increase of the thresholds of validity of consultations.

Post and telecoms join the strikes

Finally, at the end of August, it was the turn of the postal services to join the strike. The management of the Royal Mail, privatized in 2013 and now listed on the stock exchange, was willing to accept a 5% pay rise. But for Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), this proposal is not serious, especially as it combines a 2% linear increase with a £500 cheque. For the CWU, only a catch-up with inflation was possible. At the end of July, the consultation involved 77% of the workforce, 96.7% of whom voted in favor of strike action. The strike was announced in two stages. The first day of strike action, on 31 August, concerned only the 125,000 Royal Mail workers. This was followed by a ‘sectoral’ strike on 8 and 9 September involving 40,000 British Telecom employees. The 31 August strike was very well attended, with over 2,000 pickets.

According to the views of trade unionists I interviewed, the strike was also followed by some frontline managers. It should be noted that post offices are, for the most part, run as retail outlets or grocery shops that have a franchise for mail-related activities. The bulk of the business – and a lucrative one at that, given that the Royal Mail has made £170 million in net profits in 2021 – is concentrated in the collection, sorting and distribution of letters and parcels. In this respect, it is clear that the Royal Mail has followed the same trajectory as many other postal services that combine neo-taylorian rationalisation with chronic understaffing and under-equipment. This also explains why we find in the background of the pay issue the experience of deteriorating working conditions:

‘We have been taken away from fixed hours, which adds work that will never be paid. Now we are being asked to come in on Sundays, with the festive season. [I started at the Royal Mail three and a half years ago and I can say that the workload is increasing all the time. Our tours are getting longer and longer. As some people finish early, at district management level they tell us we have to do more. These kinds of managers have never been a ‘postie’. They don’t understand that we live in Luton, Bromley or Bedfordshire… a long way from London with more than an hour and a half to travel. Inevitably, we skip the lunch break, which allows us to finish earlier and arrive home around 5-6pm, knowing that we also get up at 4am! The route calculations are absurd. We have always had fewer parcels in the summer than in November and December, but they don’t care about that. They base the winter rounds on the summer volumes. A real rip-off. What’s more, our equipment is in a terrible state: there aren’t enough trolleys and we have to make do. We make do and we tinker. A colleague will fill the van to the brim and leave some of the parcels to be delivered at a grocery store affiliated to the network. From there, another colleague takes over and includes it in his round. The next day, we swap rounds between the one who walks and the one who drives. It’s normal, there’s no reason why some people should have a harder time than others. The management knows this very well and they turn a blind eye. In fact, a lot of them are on strike with …’

As in the railway sector, the management is trying to exchange a wage increase for the imposition of a ‘modernisation of operations’. But for the CWU, linking the two is out of the question ‘as it would mean taking back with one hand what was conceded with the other’. For Dave Ward, ‘a 10% increase would be very reasonable given that the Royal Mail has made over £650 million in profits in 2021 and almost £500 million has been distributed to shareholders and top management’ [17] .

3 – Towards a hot winter?

 The death of the Queen has certainly put social tensions on hold for a few weeks. However, there is no sign that the strike wave will abate. So, if the summer is behind us, there is also the question of the outcome of strike action. Will management make concessions or engage in a showdown?

It is impossible to answer this question except to say, with a great deal of phlegm, that nothing has been decided… It is true that the public sector has remained rather on the sidelines until now. Unison, the main union in this sector, supports the centre-left orientation of Labour led by Keir Starmer, who says he is ready to govern ‘with reason’. At the level of the NHS, Unison put to the vote the managerial proposal of an increase of only 4.5%. But this was overwhelmingly rejected and the union was forced to consult workers on strike action before 27 October. In the local authority and public schools, the pay rise proposals appear to be more significant and could involve a flat rate of £2,000 and an extra day’s holiday, which would amount to a 10% rise for the lowest paid and 6-8% for middle and high earners. Again, the union put the proposed increase to the vote without taking a position.

Meanwhile, the Liz Truss government announced a drastic reduction in the number of civil servants (90,000 out of a total of 600,000), angering the PCS (Public Civil Servants Union), which immediately launched consultations for a series of strikes in November. In education, the University and College Union (UCU) has also mobilized its members, having already obtained a favorable strike notice in 22 universities and colleges for October.

It is true that no major conflict has so far resulted in a victory for the trade union camp. At the same time, some important but more local disputes show that victories are far from being out of reach. In Coventry, for example, the city’s refuse collectors won a 12.9% pay rise after six months of strike action. The same is true in Thurrock. A number of emblematic disputes on issues other than pay have been won. Examples include London hospital staff fighting to be integrated into the internal workforce; Manchester bus drivers and British Airways workers at Heathrow airport fighting against the ‘Fire and Rehire’ system; and workers at the manufacturer of a range of products and services. There are also the workers at pallet manufacturer CHEP, who after a historic 20-week strike won a 9% pay rise.

Very recently, Liverpool dockers and Unite succeeded to secure a deal with Peel Port authority with a pay increase between 14.5 and 18%. This demonstrates that where balance of forces change in favor of the workers, employers are ready to dig into their pockets.

The molecular accumulation – in the sense that this remains ‘invisible’ until it expresses its disruptive impact – of partial victories can also lead employers to harden their position. From their point of view, any concession is dangerous because it may encourage others to strike too. But not making concessions will inevitably strengthen the position of the trade union side. For Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, workers have seen their purchasing power melt away while profits have reached new heights: ‘We’ve seen wages stagnate and now we’re seeing a decline because wages are not keeping up with inflation. If we accept this, we will end up with a pittance that will plunge us into poverty. No way!  For the leader of the RMT, it is time for the working class to go on the offensive: ‘We are ready for it, especially since the job market is giving us a boost since employers can no longer find anyone to work in unbearable conditions for miserable wages. (speech 17 August launch meeting Enough is enough).

Asked whether we are witnessing the death of the Thatcherite project, or simply a return to social conflict, Lynch replied, ‘Well, I don’t know if Thatcherism will end, because to end it you have to put something else in place. (…) The only way to end it is to put in place a system, or a set of reforms, and that’s why I think Labour leadership under Keir Starmer has an opportunity. At the same time the Labour Party does not reflect the social aspirations for change. I think they are too cautious. I think they’ve been brought up in a way that makes them afraid of radicalism.[18]

In the absence of adequate political support, sectors of the trade union movement decided to launch a unitary campaign Enough  is  enough  that is meeting with a growing response in the country. ‘Enough is enough’ was initiated by the most combative sectors of the trade union world, in alliance with housing associations, youth and the left of Labour, with the idea that ‘they are acting in their class interests, it’s time we did too’. For Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry, ‘the current crisis is a cost of living crisis, it is a social crisis for labour, not a crisis for capital which continues to reap profits and distribute millions in dividends. [It is a crisis not because there is not enough wealth, but because wealth is being monopolized by a tiny minority’ (speech at the meeting on 17 August 2022).

‘Enough is Enough’ campaigns for the convergence of wage struggles into cross-industry and societal strike action, with explicit reference to Britain’s only general strike in 1926. The platform defends the adoption of emergency measures to protect purchasing power in the face of the inflationary spiral (price freeze, wage adjustment to inflation) and advocates a tax on excess profits in the energy sector. As social pressure continues to mount, the TUC leadership has recently adopted a position in favor of coordinated strike action, which is exceptional for this trade union confederation.

On Saturday 1er October, the first day of joint strikes by railway workers, postal workers and dockers was a success. A rare occurrence in the UK, it gave rise to numerous street demonstrations. Other strike days are already announced for October and November. It is very likely that the public sector or health care will join the movement, which could destabilize the new government just in place and lead to early elections. The Labour leadership is adopting a moderate stance, reminiscent in some quarters of the Antony aka ‘Tory’ Blair era, but the Labour left and the trade union left are mobilizing to push for emergency measures, prompting editorial writers in the centre-left Guardian, the Times and the right-wing Telegraph to say that the unions are once again ‘the leading opposition force’ in the country.

This social opposition may be able to take advantage of a divided and somewhat chaotic government. Very recently, the crisis in the Conservative Party took a dramatic turn for the worse when Liz Truss, having just come to power, approved a budget that would reduce taxes on the wealthiest groups by £45 billion. However, the same government decided to cap energy bills at £2,500 per year, a measure that is expected to cost between £70 and £140 billion depending on the evolution of basic prices. Even for the IMF, such a policy is completely inconsistent. The financial markets also disapproved of the package, immediately causing the British currency to fall, which endangered the pension funds that derive a considerable fraction of their income from financial investments. Faced with the risk of a stock market collapse – similar to that caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – the government was forced to back down. For its part, the Bank of England is persisting in its anti-inflationary policy by raising key rates, following the example of the FED and the ECB. This can only make credit more expensive and cause a large number of companies to go bankrupt. The energy crisis is far from being resolved, not least because the war in Ukraine has stalled. Even if the emergency measure of capping bills has succeeded in temporarily halting the rise in inflation, if it remains at 10% for much longer, it is clear that the impoverishment of entire layers of the workforce will not go unchallenged.

However, on the political front, at the time of writing, chaos remains. In mid-October, the finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng was sacked and replaced by Jeremy Hunt who tried to jump after that to Downing Street, the only way to avoid early elections. Unfortunately for him, the Tories have elected Rishi Sunak, a multibillionaire, as leader in order to take this uncomfortable position.

The combination of social mobilisations and strikes on the one hand and political chaos on the other forms a veritable explosive cocktail, to the point where The Economist headlined its 18 October edition as Welcome in Britaly. The disarray within the ruling class is gaining ground, as it is becoming difficult to combine right-wing populism with neoliberal economic reason.

4 – At least the end of a long social winter

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 resulted in a historic defeat for the British labour movement. This defeat not only demoralized the most combative sectors of the trade union movement but also changed the overall balance of power, facilitated by a fierce restriction on the right to strike through a long list of restrictive procedures [19] . These restrictions were recently reinforced when David Cameron’s government imposed a minimum threshold of 50% of the electorate and 70% of the vote in favor of strike action in 2016.

This epochal shift could be summarized by saying that neoliberalism has succeeded in imposing a ‘forced social pacification’ and this can be seen in the collapse of the number of individual days not worked (IDNW) due to strikes. Indeed, after peaking at 30 million days in the late 1970s, strike activity fell to 5 million in 1985 and then declined to between 150,000 and 300,000 IDNWs per year in the 1990s and 2000s. We find this notion of coercive pacification in the analysis of Dave Lyddon (2007, 2015) for whom neoliberalism expresses the constant desire to repress trade union action.

Data: Office of National Statistics – UK.

The number of strike days per 1,000 employees, which is an indicator of the social density of strike activity, confirms this finding. In the UK, since the early 2000s, the threshold of 50 working days lost per 1,000 employees has very rarely been exceeded. By way of comparison, in other countries such as Belgium, France and Spain, in years of cross-industry strikes, there are peaks of 300 to 500 days lost per 1,000 employees, while in years of ‘social calm’, strike activity remains at around 80 to 100 days lost. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the neoliberal governance model has succeeded in making strike activity residual and marginal.

Source: ETUI – Kurt Vandaele.

However, it should be pointed out that the British statistical data only count strikes of more than 20 employees lasting at least a whole day. This leaves aside work stoppages, which historically represent a privileged mode of action, to the point these micro-strikes were considered a singularity of British industrial relations.

At this point, it is difficult to prejudge what will happen next. On the other hand, it is possible to measure the change of era and to say that social conflicts emerged from a long period of hibernation. Already, the number of Individual Days Not Worked has exceeded 2 million, which shows that strikes are no longer a taboo for trade unions and that they are ready to engage in social conflicts such as we have seen in the past.

It remains to be seen whether the long cycle of defeats and social setbacks will give way to a new offensive cycle with an accumulation of social conquests. This brings us back to the debate of the early 1980s about the existence of long waves in the class struggle and their relation to long waves in capital accumulation. The notion of long waves was initiated by Nikolaj Kondratieff in the 1930’s and reframed by the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel (Mandel, 1980; Kleinkecht, Mandel & Wallerstein, 1992). It postulates the existence of sequences long periods of upswing and downswing in the cycle of accumulation. In the late 1970s, some started to seek after linkages between longs waves and trends in conflictuality that could have an indirect but real relationship.

Even if this approach has been criticized by some for its impossible empirical validation (Beverly Silver, 1980; 1991), others, such as John Kelly (1998), were inspired by it to highlight that conflictuality not only maintains a sort of ‘path dependency’ but that there are also more structural realities that facilitate or hinder striker activity and, more broadly, strikes. Of course, these structural determinants are located as much in the infrastructure (the social relations of production, the labour market) as in the superstructure (the rules and norms, the ideological hegemony or the vitality of the trade union movement). I will leave the long wave controversy aside because it requires a proper investigation in the economic field and in particular the evolution of profitability. On the other hand, following here the insights of John Kelly, it is certain that certain infra and super-structural coordinates influence the amplitude and the intensity of strikes and conflict.

In the case of Great Britain, the fall in unemployment to 3.5% certainly plays in favor of the return of social conflict. It is certainly not yet ‘full employment’ (with a lot of precariousness) but the demand for labour is approaching the supply of labour, which changes the situation from the workers’ point of view. For the CIDP, a HR research centre [20], in a recent report, companies are experiencing increasing difficulties recruitment . According to their latest barometer of HR departments last spring, six out of ten companies are facing prolonged difficulties and would be willing to increase the hiring salary to facilitate recruitment and make the job more attractive.

It should be noted that the fall in unemployment is less the result of net job creation than of a double structural change, namely the ageing of the population and Brexit. The first is common to other OECD countries. The baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1968, has started to retire, leaving a growing number of job vacancies. According to a study made in 2018 by CEDEFOP (the European Centre for the Study of Skills and Qualifications), 9 out of 10 job vacancies in Europe are now linked to retirement. The latest report on the UK sounds the alarm about the rapidly increasing need for labour. According to the calculations of demographer Ilias Leanos, in the coming decade will need to recruit over 15 million people by 2030 in the UK alone. Even if this figure is an overestimation of recruitment needs (given de coming recession), the scale of the need is enormous, as is not far from evoking a renewal of more than half of the working population [21] !  It should also be noted that in this set of vacancies, half of them concern semi- or unskilled workers. Since a couple of years, the labour shortages are severely felt at all skill levels, which improves the overall social balance of power in favor of the workers.

A recent study by Oxford University has found that the Brexit is playing a significant role in the surge in labour shortages [22] . According to the authors of the study, the post-Brexit immigration system has introduced visa requirements for EU citizens who could previously work in any job. To date, this labour supply has not been matched by access to the labour market for non-EU citizens. As a result, low-wage jobs that relied heavily on EU workers are no longer eligible for work visas [23] . Indirectly, the Brexit has contributed to the drying up of the recruitment pool for a number of jobs at the lower and middle end of the skills spectrum.

In addition to these structural aspects linked to the state of the labour market, we are also witnessing a return to ‘collectivism’. This concept will make some people smile – but it has nothing to do with the Soviet model – it only leads not to limit analysis to a rise in individualism. Even if the notion of collectivism is absent from most of French-speaking sociological analysis of industrial relations [24], it is not without relevance since it allows us to question the availability for a collective commitment, whether it be union membership or commitment to strike action. For John Kelly (Rethinking Industrial relations, 1998), ‘collectivism’ is part of mobilization theory and is based on a feeling of shared injustice and the conviction that it is possible to improve one’s social condition on a collective basis. So it is not only acting in the interest of oneself but express also the awareness that acting together can deliver more than being a ‘free rider’, even in the olsonian way.

In this respect, several facts indicate that collectivism refers to a molecular process of mutual solidarity that precedes social conflict. The spontaneous strikes at Amazon – which are part of a non-unionized dispute – indicate that deep resentment had been building up for some time. Resentment and anger are fueled by a sense of injustice that spreads and ends by expressing itself in a work stoppage.

In addition to this specificity of the wildcat strike, it is important to underline how the very heterogeneous social composition of the working class in no way hindered the mobilisation. In the Amazon Fullfilment centre in Tilbury, the majority of workers are under forty, a third are women and more than half are ‘non white’ or of foreign origin. The’ variety of subjective experiences and conditions did not prevent the coagulation of anger towards collective action. This is not always the case and it is therefore worth emphasizing. Other sectors on strike, such as the postal service or the railways, are also marked by diversity in terms of gender and cultural identity. However, the strikes demonstrate, by their absolute majority character, that heterogeneity is no longer an obstacle.

Mick Lynch confirms this in his own way when he explains that questions of identity, gender, racialization or sexual orientation can be ‘articulated to the class struggle’. The latter remains a unifying factor, but on condition that racism and sexism are also fought (Jacobin interview).  In other words, identities structured around struggles against specific oppressions have a place in the trade union movement. This has been the case for a long time, as British unions have been applying the principle of self-organisation for specific groups such as black and colored people, Asians, women and LGBT people since the 1990s. It is understandable that one third of the RMT’s members in the London Underground are from racialized minorities. More generally, according to government statistics, the proportion of unionized employees is highest among ‘black and black British’ workers (26.9 per cent), followed by workers classified as ‘mixed’ (24.1 per cent) and ‘white’ (24 per cent). Overall, there are more women than men in the TUC.

Collectivism is also expressed in the ‘grey areas’ of the labour market, on the side of gig workers, with the emergence of proto-union action by platform workers who have begun to form a multitude of action collectives. Sometimes these collectives become part of new unions, such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, founded in 2012 by a collective of cleaning workers all of Latin American origin. Sociological studies (Gandini, 2018 ; Cini, 2022) on these mobilisations observe a number of common features: rejection of piecework and self-employed status, the desire to benefit from social protection and community-based mobilisation dynamics. Most of these collective structures combines mobilisation and legal or court action, resulting in an important victory that is beginning to set a precedent.

The UK Supreme Court’s February 2021 decision considers that Uber drivers should be treated as workers, not as independent contractors. This unanimous decision is expected to have a significant impact on platform businesses as drivers are entitled to benefits such as holiday pay, minimum wage and a supplementary pension. The reason is simple, Uber imposes fares and routes without any negotiation and imposes a disciplinary regime on drivers based on their ratings. The court, rejecting Uber’s long-standing practice of treating its drivers as independent contractors, also ruled that the company’s more than 70,000 UK drivers will have to be paid for the hours they are logged on to the Uber app, regardless of the demand for transport.

Since this judgement, a number of similar cases (Pimlico plumbers, CitySprint and Excel Services delivery workers, Bolt delivery workers) have been brought to court and have all resulted in a confirmation of the judgement in the Uber drivers’ case [25] . In terms of status, it is interesting to note that the mobilisations combining direct action and legal action are making progress towards the recognition of the hybrid status of ‘Limb (b) workers’, who are neither freelancers nor self-employed nor employed and integrated into the workforce in the classical sense of the term, but dependent workers to whom the company must pay the minimum hourly wage as long as they are connected by their application, as well as social protection and days off [26] .

In the end, it is certainly still too early to validate the hypothesis of a new cycle of offensive struggles, but the examples of mobilisations are multiplying and the gaps are opening up here and there. The decline in unemployment should continue for structural reasons and the revival of collectivism is helping to revitalise trade union action.

5 – Conclusive reflections

Firstly, it is clear that purchasing power, already at half mast since the pandemic, has become a central issue for workers in all sectors. The 2009-2019 decade was one of wage stagnation, and this is not accepted anymore in an inflationary context. The rationalization of the work process has led to a deterioration in working conditions, which in turn has nourished the feeling that effort must continue to increase even though it is less and less well paid. The sharp drop in purchasing power in the spring of 2022 is just one more drop in a pot that was about to overflow. When the latent sense of injustice is widely shared, it does not take much – such as the announcement of record profits – for it to turn into a spirit of revolt. The conviction that strike action is necessary has become a widely shared idea in a very short time.

The second finding is that the regulatory obstacles to strike action are far from insurmountable. But to succeed in crossing the threshold of approval, the union must necessarily convince a majority of workers that strike action is justified and that it can bring about substantial improvements. To succeed in such a campaign – commonly called a ‘strike ballot campaign’ – it is necessary to mobilise the whole union apparatus, the reps, publish leaflets, emails and ultimately text every worker. It is significant that combative unions such as the CWU, RMT, Unite or PCS are doing this as much as the more moderate unions (Unison, GMB). This indicates that the trade union ‘base’ and more broadly the workers are exasperated by the loss of purchasing power after a long period of wage moderation. The union leadership is in tune with this feeling and understands that such a situation is untenable. But as trade unionists, they also feel that the trade union movement can take revenge after years, if not decades, of losing and conceding much. This is what Mick Lynch says when he announces that the working class is back.

Thirdly, trade unions, even limited in their scope of action, remain powerful institutions. In the 1970s, unions had almost 13 million members. From the 1980s onwards, they have been steadily loosing membership to 6,5 million members but since 2015 around at least 100,000 workers have decided to join every year. The majority of these new members are women, young people, people with recent migrant background, black, asian and colored people. This reflects a collective awareness that the union is an indispensable tool for defending one’s rights and interests. At the same time, this process reflects the social recomposition of the working class. If Labour has a lot of trouble mobilizing its traditional electorate, the unions kept a very broad base and thus formed the central institution of a working class which, of which important sections do express again it’s existence ‘for itself’ again, particularly through these conflicts.

Fourthly, social dialogue is not much institutonalized, which puts the unions themselves, or even the workers themselves (Amazon), at the centre of the playfield, rather than the institutional bodies and the distribution of mandates, which is much more the case in France. As was pointed out at the very beginning of this article, the British model of collective bargaining in no way favors ‘social dialogue’. Since these relations between employers and trade unions operate almost on a voluntary basis, around what is known as the ‘single channel’ system, there is not much normative or contractual production. As a result, the coverage of collective agreements is painfully low at 30%, which is among the lowest levels in Western countries. Even when a trade union is recognized and plays the role provided elsewhere by employee representative institutions, the employer may or may not agree to negotiate. Such an institutional ‘vacuum’ can also fuel social conflict, as employers’ refusal to concede improvements, which in turn may reinforce the feeling of injustice and make workers receptive to the idea of an open dispute. Information and consultation is done at the whim of the employer. This deleterious situation has led the trade union movement to reorganize, to conduct membership campaigns, inspired by the American model of ‘organizing’ [27] . At the level of TUC member unions, several unions have come together under the banner of Unite and the GMB [28] (public and private sector) while several unions merged together  in the public sector (Unison). The leader of Unite, Sharon Graham, is taking a much more antagonistic approach to industrial relations also organizing cross-sectoral coalitions at local level.

The fact that social conflict is making such a massive and tumultuous return after four decades of enforced pacification does not yet explain this phenomenon. In order to make progress in this direction, we will also have to draw up an in-depth assessment of British neoliberalism and question the persistence of a structural antagonism between capital and labour. I will do this in two forthcoming articles: the first on the splendours and miseries of neoliberalism; the second on the depth of class divisions and antagonisms.



21st of October 2022 (updated 14th of November).

* I would to thank Michael Roberts, Erik Demeester and Nicola Cianferoni for their suggestions and comments.

Websites with background information

Notes From Below   (with a lot of first hand reports)

Tribune Magazine

Socialist Appeal

Socialist Worker


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[1] Great Britain includes England, Scotland and Wales; the UK also includes Northern Ireland. As there has been less strike action in Northern Ireland, I prefer to call it Great Britain. At the same time, politically, the primary entity remains the United Kingdom.

[2] This expression echoes the winter of discontent of 1978-1979, during which a wave of strikes had put the Labour government in difficulty. See Marc Lenormand, L’« hiver du mécontentement » de 1978-1979 : du mythe politique à la crise interne du mouvement travailliste, in Revue française de civilisation britannique, XXII- hors-série | 2017,

[3] In other countries with a ‘dual system’, such as Germany, there are both IORPs such as the Betriebsrät (works council, similar to the CE, now the CSE) and Vertrauwensleute (people of trust) who are elected on a trade union list. This is known as a ‘dual channel of representation’.

[4] Chartism is a political expression of the nascent labour movement that developed in the mid-19ème century following the adoption of the People’s Charter. The imposition of a censal electoral system had excluded the working class from parliamentary democracy. The People’s Charter was adopted in 1838 and called for universal male suffrage, fair constituency boundaries, the abolition of property ownership as a condition of eligibility, annual parliamentary elections and the secret ballot. The movement remained active until 1848 and gave rise to mutual aid funds, cooperatives and the first trade union movement. EP Thompson; Jacques Carré, La Grande-Bretagne au 19ème siècle, Paris, 1997, 160 p.

[5] Employers and employees face a “great cost squeeze” as government support fails to lift sufficient pressure say managers, 22 April, see

[6] Unite Investigates: Corporate profiteering and the cost of living crisis. Report commissioned by Sharon Graham, June 2022, mimeo, 28p.

[7] The notion of excess profits refers to profits that are added to those already made, due to causes external to the market, such as a war. But there is no consensus on this definition. For my part, I prefer the notions of profit and rent (rents thank to dominant positions on the market or speculative rent).

[8] Jonathan Bradshaw, University of York, “Fuel Poverty: Estimates for the UK”, available here; see also  


[10] Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association,  

[11] 71% of the workforce took part in the vote and of those, 89% were in favor of strike action.    

[12] See in particular   

[13]  A majority of young people and transport users support them, but older people (over 50) or residents of rural areas tend to be opposed. Although almost 70% of Labour voters express support for rail strikes, Keir Starmer, Labour’s centre-left leader who succeeded Jeremy Corbyn, believes that the Labour Party should remain neutral above all else, which allows him to call on Labour MPs to stay off the picket line. See Katherine Swindells, “Where does public opinion stand on the rail strikes?, Younger people are far more likely than older people to support striking train workers”, in New Statesman

[14] It takes 100 pennies to make a pound.

[15] In English, these spontaneous strikes are called wildcat strikes, referring to the unannounced strike action taken by activists of the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary trade union organisation in the United States. These strikes were aimed at disrupting production in order to protest against management decisions. In this case, they are strikes that do not follow the normal procedures leading to a strike (consultation and notice).

[16] In 2001, Amazon decided to counter a campaign for union recognition by kicking out some union members while giving a 10% pay rise. As a result, the union received dozens of resignation letters and suffered a painful setback with 80% of workers voting against union recognition.

[17] For an overview of the results for 2021, see   

[18] See Jacobin, 10 June 2022, )

[19]. Mathilde Bertrand, Cornelius Crowley, Thierry Labica, C’est ici que notre défaite a commencé. La grève des mineurs britanniques(1984-1985), ed. Syllepse, 2016.


[21] Ilias Leanos, Cedefop, Skills forecast United Kingdom, see

As well as the more global analysis of the post-pandemic labour market


[23] Madeleine Sumption, Chris Forde, Gabriella Alberti & Peter Walsh (2022), How is the End of Free Movement Affecting the Low-wage Labour Force in the UK? first report, 15 AUG 2022, The Migration Observatory COMPAS (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society), University of Oxford.

[24] – In France, either this ‘collectivism’ is taken for granted, or its absence is, based on an analysis that notes the atomisation of work collectives, the omnipresence of consent and servitude, docility and loyalty. There is, however, a possibility of thinking about things in a more dialectical way, by mobilizing, for example, the notion of resistance at work or that of ‘relevant communities of collective action’ proposed by Denis Segrestin (1980). See S. Bouquin (2020), Bellanger and Thuderoz (2012) or, on the subject of collective action, D. Segrestin (1980).


[26] Under section 230 of the Employment Relations Act 1996, a worker is defined as an individual who has entered into or is working under (a) a contract of employment or (b) any other contract, whether express or implied, whether oral or written, by which the individual undertakes personally to do or perform work or services for another party to the contract whose status is not, by virtue of the contract, that of a client of a profession or business carried on by the individual. Persons who are not employees but who meet the requirements of paragraph (b) above are sometimes referred to as Limb (b) workers. See also  

[27] Organizing is a new trade union practice which emerged in the United States in the early 2000s and which aims to win over sectors of workers in a company to a majority vote in favor of recognition of the role of interlocutor. It is now criticized for its very institutionalist approach, and some people oppose it to the deep organizing model, which refers to in-depth action based on the constitution of semi-clandestine networks, inspired in particular by the IWW. See Milkman R., Bloom J., Narro V. (2010), Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy.

[28] Unite the Union, a merger of Amicus and TGWU, organises more workers in the industrial, logistics and construction sectors. It has 1.2 million members; the GMB, formerly the General, Municipal, Boilermakers’ and Allied Trade Union, has 640,000 members employed in industry, retail, security, schools, distribution, public services, social services, the National Health Service (NHS), ambulance services and local government.



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