As the year approaches its end and we reflect on what has made the last 12 months stand out against past years, certain words and phrases spring to mind.
Infamously, the Oxford Dictionary chose ‘Goblin Mode,’ for its Word of the Year, which refers to behaviour that is ‘unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy’. While this may strike a resonant chord for some of us currently, in that purgatorial span between Christmas and New Year, it doesn’t speak much to the broader tone of the year.
The Collins Dictionary may have landed on a much more suitable term in this sense, having opted for ‘Permacrisis; an extended period of instability and insecurity,’ which seems apt for a year which saw more prime ministers than some decades.
But there is another word which, for the first time in years, has passed almost daily across the front pages of newspapers, sparked debate in pubs, supermarkets, cafes and offices, struck fear into the hearts of commuters and encouraged huge crowds out to demonstrations and picket lines in solidarity; strike.
The most high profile strikes have been those in public-facing sectors called on a national basis, namely the rail strikes, the Royal Mail dispute and latterly the Royal College of Nursing’s historic decision to strike for the first time in its history. But there has also been an uptick in localised disputes, with public sector paramedics, bus drivers and refuse workers all walking out in pursuit of better pay in parts of the country, while private sector workers in industries as varied as coffin-making and confectionery manufacture have also launched disputes.
While this trend has been cast by some as a return to the 1970s, this caricature ignores the very real and very present conditions which have driven hundreds of thousands of workers to make the difficult and often costly decision to take industrial action.
More industrial action in four months than previous four years
Signs of what was to come were visible to those who knew where to look at the beginning of the year, but by the end of spring the increased incidence of industrial action was apparent to all. What was initially billed as a ‘summer of discontent’ bled over into the autumn then winter, and now looks set to carry on well into next year.
The main way we measure the prevalence of strike action throughout the economy is by looking at working days lost to industrial action, which hit a 10-year high in the most recent data available.
Around 417,000 working days were lost in October, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), up significantly since the previous high a few months earlier in August (356,000).
The ONS did not measure the number of days lost to industrial action between February 2020 and May 2022 due to the pandemic, meaning we do not have a clear idea of the rate of industrial action over the full course of this year. But there were a total of around 1.2 million working days lost between June and October, meaning the total was higher for four months this year than in the last four years for which there is complete data, from 2016 to 2019 (1.1 million).
Since the millennium, the number of days lost to industrial action in a year has only exceeded a million four times; in 2022, 2011 (1.4 million), 2007 (1 million) and 2002 (1.3 million). In all likelihood the true figure for the latter half of this year, including November and December when thousands of teachers, nurses and civil servants joined the fray, will be significantly higher than any full year since the late 80s.
So the data proves what felt obvious; in 2022, industrial action became a more prevalent and consistent feature of our economy than it has been for some time. Why? Certain sections of the media have spun tales of shadowy ‘union barons,’ intent on waging class war against the government to the detriment of not only the public but their own members. But this fantasy - which overlooks the tightly regulated and democratic nature of trade union activity in the UK - is deployed to distract from a simple reality: while many companies post record profits, workers are getting poorer, quickly - and many are not taking it lying down.
Inflation has hit levels not seen in decades, with the headline rate of CPI failing to convey the true impact of rising costs on the poorest households, for whom everything from groceries to council tax to energy bills tend to cost proportionately more.
People may have been better prepared to weather what may turn out to be a harsh but relatively brief inflationary storm, had real-term wages not been stagnant for the best part of the two decades which preceded it. But, as analysis by the TUC and others has consistently shown, most workers are worse off in real-terms than they were before the 2008 financial crash - particularly those in the public sector.
It is almost cruelly ironic that opponents of real-terms pay increases have justified their stance with grave warnings that increasing pay would lead to rising inflation, when it is of course the present reality of high inflation after a long period of stagnation which necessitates these pay rises. These arguments are yet more galling when advanced by politicians and bureaucrats who have consistently seen their already-generous pay packets swell year-on-year.
Strikes are generally discussed in terms of their disruptive impacts, which is reasonable to an extent, not least because disruption is part of the idea behind strike action; to demonstrate the utility of the workers and highlight their worth by showing the consequences of them not turning up to work.
The intended target of this disruption is the employer, with companies often taking a substantial hit to their income as a result - in some cases more than it would have cost to settle a dispute - but in public-facing sectors, such as transport or logistics, disruption inevitably impacts the general public.
To focus entirely on the disruptive impact of strikes to the individual, rather than the underlying conditions which bring them about or the nature of the disputes they are designed to end, is to reduce an important democratic function and bellwether for the economy at large down to something akin to a traffic update or weather report. This is something much of the media has been guilty of throughout this heightened period of industrial action. Another common issue has been the failure to convey that, at best, both sides of a dispute are responsible for that disruption; not just the trade unions, but bosses, too.
It also means we ignore the very real benefits that the difficult decision to take action can yield when disputes are resolved in favour of workers. Hundreds of thousands - potentially millions - of people are already or will be better off than they would have been otherwise because they decided to take industrial action this year. Families have been able to keep their heads above water, have been able to sleep that little bit easier, because they successfully stood up for themselves at work.
This doesn’t just benefit those involved, but the wider economy as well. When workers have more money left at the end of the month after paying their housing costs and utilities - which have risen starkly in the last 12 months - they spend it on ailing local high streets, in struggling bars and restaurants, or with other businesses, in turn supporting their staff.
While most disputes relate to the core issue of pay, each will also have elements specific to it that ultimately play a large part in determining how and when it is resolved.
The national rail dispute, which relates as much to working conditions and the structure of the industry as to pay, could well see a resolution in a matter of weeks, whereas civil servants, nurses and others have warned that action could extend well into next year unless a deal is made. There are also signs that other groups of workers not currently involved in disputes could launch fresh strike action in the new year, including junior doctors.
What is clear is that in 2022 a dam burst. Workers who for years put up with measly or non-existent wage increases were forced by a deluge of rising prices to take a stand. What remains to be seen is whether, in the future, 2022 will be remembered as the year of strikes, an aberration, or as the first year in a longer period when industrial action returned to the fore.