The strikes trickled in at first and then came like a flood. As labor disputes gained momentum in Britain last year, postal workers, train drivers, nurses, teachers and others walked out, some for the first time ever, as they demanded higher pay or better working conditions.
The strikes — concentrated, like the strength of Britain’s labor unions, in the public sector and formerly state-owned businesses — sometimes converged or coincided with each other, disrupting life across the country, as transportation ground to a halt, the mail stopped and medical procedures were postponed.
But the disputes that rattled Britain, and England in particular, for much of the winter may finally be drawing to a close, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government brokering a major agreement with nurses and hundreds of thousands of other health workers, and rail unions suspending planned strikes in March and April.
Though few of the disputes are fully settled, talks are underway in most and agreements are taking shape in many. It’s a sharp change of tone after months in which public-sector workers and the Conservative government seemed at an impasse.
Here’s what to know about the strikes and how they reached this point.
Who went on strike?
By mid-2022, the momentum for disruptions had already begun as a dispute over pay and conditions for rail workers set off repeated train strikes that hobbled public transportation. Then came action by mail workers, tens of thousands of whom went on strike for several days during the busy lead-up to Christmas, and by workers in a growing list of other sectors.
As walkouts spread across key public-sector posts, the British media began to speak of a “winter of discontent,” recalling a notorious cluster of labor disputes in the late 1970s.
Nurses with the National Health Service in England, Wales and Northern Ireland walked out in early December, the first full-blown nurses’ strike in the venerated institution’s history. Days later, paramedics and other ambulance workers began striking. Teachers began a series of strikes across England in February, having already been on strike in Scotland.
Just last week, junior doctors held three days of strikes, and teachers in England walked out for the final two days of their strikes. Tens of thousands of teachers traveled from across the country to a rally in London on March 15 — when the city also had a rail strike.
Why were they striking?
Pay wasn’t the only factor in all of these disputes. Some of the rail negotiations hinged on longstanding fights over work rules; teachers and health workers spoke of increasingly stressful conditions and fears that the services they were part of were deteriorating. But soaring energy costs and skyrocketing inflation lit a fire under simmering discontent.
By July 2022, Britain had reached double-digit levels of inflation driven by energy prices that delivered a blow to the country’s most vulnerable households. By October, the annual rate of inflation had peaked at 11.1 percent, a 41-year high. This after a decade in which many public-sector wage deals had slipped behind a far gentler rate of inflation.
While some price rises have since eased, overall inflation is still stubbornly above 10 percent, driven by particularly fierce increases in the cost of food and exacerbating a sustained cost-of-living crisis.
Many workers, particularly those in the public sector, said they had had enough. Some workers have also pointed to major staffing gaps, as sectors like health care struggled to recruit new workers with low pay in an increasingly high-pressure environment during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the same squeezed conditions made the government — which spent heavily during the pandemic, and last year began costly subsidies of energy bills — reluctant to raise public-sector pay. And many analysts thought a strong stance against strikers would be a powerful weapon for the governing Conservatives against the opposition Labour Party, which has deep links to the trade union movement.
Why the easing of labor relations now?
As the dismal financial outlook for 2023 has tempered slightly in Britain, the heated labor climate that has gripped the country also seems to be cooling. Government revenue has been larger than predicted, and the cost of energy subsidies has eased, opening up flexibility for pay offers.
Discussions between the government and many unions seem to have progressed. After many of the strikes attracted significant public support, Mr. Sunak appears to be gaining political credit through conciliation, rather than confrontation.
Last week, Britain’s Royal Mail and the main union representing its workers said they had agreed to extend talks to try and reach an agreement over pay and employment terms.
On Friday, the Department of Education said it would engage in talks with the largest teachers’ unions, saying they had agreed not to strike for two weeks and that it hoped to conclude negotiations within that time.
On Monday, members of one of the main rail unions, the RMT, voted in favor of a pay offer from the organization that administers railway infrastructure in Britain, which had been at the center of some of the most disruptive strikes. By Wednesday, planned strikes at 14 other rail companies were suspended.
Ambulance workers put a planned March strike on hold after unions said that the government had given assurances that workers’ concerns would be addressed. Nurses also halted planned strikes, and last week the Department of Health and Social Care held negotiations with unions representing nurses, ambulance staff and other workers in the National Health Service.
They agreed on pay increases and a one-off payment for more than a million staff members in the National Health Service in England, which the government said would offer a “fair deal” for the staff but one that “also acknowledged the wider economic pressures facing the U.K.”
But a doctors’ strike is still set to go ahead next month, and it is not yet clear if other health workers will accept the pay offer, with some, including nurses, now set to vote on the agreement. Pat Cullen, the secretary general of the Royal College of Nursing, a union representing nurses, said that she believed they had been vindicated in their difficult decision to strike.
“After tough negotiations, there are a series of commitments here that our members can see will make a positive impact on the nursing profession, the N.H.S. and the people who rely on it,” she said. “Our members will have their say on it and I respect everybody’s perspective. Each should look closely at what it means for them.”
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