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Strikes hit Britain as nurses, postal workers and others walk out

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.K. continues to face a rolling series of strikes in the run-up to Christmas, with both public and private sector workers walking off the job this month, often for several days. We're joined now by London-based journalist Willem Marx to hear about the impact this is having on public services, health care and transportation across the U.K. Good morning, Willem.

WILLEM MARX: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what kind of workers have been striking this week?

MARX: Well, yesterday, it was nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And that was not for the first time this month. Today, it's ambulance workers, some 10,000 of them across England and Wales. And that one involved paramedics as well as personnel from call centers and control rooms just walking off the job. They've agreed they will continue to support and answer life-threatening calls, including those for cardiac arrest. But the government has been forced to draft in 750 members of the country's military to help out.

FADEL: Wow.

MARX: Driving tests, they're all cancelled, too, as examiners are striking today. And then later this week, in the days before and during the Christmas holiday, you've got rail engineers, bus drivers, airport baggage handlers, border force agents and mail workers all out, too. And it's worth pointing out that all of these are one-day or targeted-day rolling strikes.

FADEL: Incredibly important sectors, public services. Is there an easy explanation for why there are so many strikes and across such a wide variety of sectors?

MARX: Well, there's no single answer. But there is a relatively simple answer that you can put forward, and that's just inflation.

FADEL: Yeah.

MARX: You know, wages are not keeping up with the very high rates of inflation in Britain. And given the tight labor market, employees and the unions that represent them have a significant amount leverage to demand better pay and often insist on retaining either current working conditions or improving them. On the railways, for instance, unions are saying that it's about safety and schedules.

Nurses and ambulance workers also saying their systems, the national health system, is overstretched. Patients are going to continue to suffer, they say, the consequences if higher pay is not introduced. And that's mostly about encouraging better recruitment and retention. And with many of the pay offers between, let's say, three and 5% coming from either the government or employers, you compare that to inflation running at around 10% and it's relatively easy to see why many workers feel they're being financially squeezed and have decided to take action.

FADEL: What role does the British government play in these kinds of industrial disputes?

MARX: Well, one reason that many of these public sector workers are striking, because their pay levels have fallen substantially over the past 12 years of conservative government in Britain. That's following the great financial crisis and the then conservative government's push for austerity that led to major public spending cuts. Now, the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has said he's going to continue to take quite a hard line against the various unions asking for higher pay. He's concerned about inflation continuing if pay rises.

But given these are the largest series of labor actions in the U.K. for many years, he's under increasing pressure from opinion polls, from political opponents, indeed, some people within his own party, to get involved directly in negotiations to try and resolve some of these disputes to avoid months of protracted industrial action in sectors like health care and transport, which are already really, really struggling, Leila, after the COVID-19 pandemic.

FADEL: Yeah. London-based journalist Willem Marx. Thank you so much for your time.

MARX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Willem Marx