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The Strikes... how have we got here?

Across the UK hundreds of thousands of workers have decided to go on strike in various sectors. Some of these include nurses, rail workers, teachers, mail workers and civil servants. Here, we have seen unrest across all sectors as workers take it upon themselves to take industrial action and walk out of the job in protest of real-term pay cuts, poor working conditions and consistent disinvestment in the public sector.


So… how did it come to this?


Austerity


The big honcho. Austerity is the root cause of the strikes.


In response to the damage caused by the 2008 financial crash, an extensive period of public spending cuts to vital services has resulted in an immense strain on the workforce. It appears this process has, finally, exhausted our resources to the level of breaking point.


The inevitable backlash from a policy that disproportionately punished the most vulnerable in society & squeezed middle earners to the limit is now happening as a result.


Wage Stagnation


On average, Britain has seen inflation levels of around 10%… public sector workers have seen their pay packet rise to the tune of around 4.5%.


You do the maths.


Brexit


Rearing its wee horrid head up again, Brexit is the gift that just won’t stop giving… and its economic fallout with the British economy is now clear.


The excess administrative stress faced by businesses has seen a steep decline in exports to Europe & price rises on goods coming in the other way.



To get a clearer picture, I decided to speak to some folk in the public sector.


This is what I found…


Nurses


What has happened?


The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) put pressure on the Government over insufficient pay. The RCN overwhelmingly rejected a pay offer from the Scottish Government on 19th December 2022. This led to the threat of strike action being mounted by the RCN early in 2023. However, strikes have again been put on hold as negotiations are set to take place between the Scottish Government and the RCN once again in an attempt to settle the pay dispute.


What do they want?


The core issue according to the RCN is wages. The RCN is demanding a 19% pay increase for nurses to cover rises in inflation and years of wage stagnation. This means from the perspective of the RCN pay is at the centre of the issue here and should be the sole concern.

We got the opinion of one trainee nurse through a series of questions on how the strikes have influenced them and their prospects.


This was how they responded:


What do you think the main reasons for the strikes are?


Nurses’ wages do not reflect the amount of work that they do, the stress they are under and the amount of responsibility that they have. They are also striking for patients, not having enough staff creates an unsafe environment for people who are ill and vulnerable.


How have the strikes affected you, your fellow students and others you know?


To be honest I’ve not felt a huge impact with the strikes yet but I do worry that it could potentially impact future placements that I go on or affect going on placement in general.


How have the strikes impacted your wellbeing and have they affected your thoughts and feelings about entering the profession?


I guess it has really made me think about how nurses are underpaid and sometimes I do wonder if I’m going into the right profession which is really sad because I can’t imagine myself in another career.


If the strikes were to not be successful would this affect your attitude and motivation towards pursuing nursing as a career?


I want to say no as I applied to study nursing before the strikes started but if when I qualify nothing has changed and the wage does not reflect inflation what choice do I have? I also don’t think nurses should have to work overtime, unsociable hours, and do nightshifts just to bump up their wage!


Brutal at times… but honest answers here from a nurse I spoke to in training. We can see the impact that the strikes have had on her attitudes and beliefs towards pursuing a career in the profession which ultimately will show itself in our public services through lower staff retention, labour shortages and poor service quality within the healthcare system.

A sidenote was given after the interview saying, “It’s also a complete kick in the teeth to hear that MPs are getting a pay rise!”. Fair.


Teachers


What has happened?


The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) announced an initial set of rolling strikes from members from the 16th January 2023 – 6th February 2023. Talks between unions, councils and the Scottish Government were unsuccessful and teaching unions rejected offers of a 5% pay increase and pay increases of up to 6.85% for those members of staff on the lowest rates of pay. This has resulted in the EIS announcing another set of strike dates. These include strikes for all schools on the 28th February and 1st March subsequently followed by another series of rolling strikes between 13th March and 21st April.


What do they want?


The main goal clearly set out by the teaching union is to achieve higher rates of pay. From this we can take it that the official position of the EIS is that pay is the core concern of teachers. In order to investigate this, we ran a survey of 150 schoolteachers within Scotland. In this survey we asked teachers:


1. If they agreed with the strikes.

2. What were the most important issues affecting teachers currently.

3. Have working conditions affected them personally (including their physical and mental wellbeing).

4. Have they considered leaving the profession due to working conditions.

5. If the strikes were unsuccessful how likely would they be to leave the profession.

6. How much financial support have they had to seek in order to support them during the strikes.


We found that 64% of teachers surveyed agreed with the strikes, whilst 13% did not. While the top three most important issues affecting teachers now were workload (93%), pupil behaviour (85%) and resources (75%). Pay was ranked fourth at 67%.


87% of teachers claimed that working conditions had affected them personally; 66% said that they had considered leaving the professions due to working conditions; 27% said they were either likely or very likely to leave the profession if the strikes were unsuccessful and 23% have had to seek financial assistance to allow them to continue to participate in strike action.


Comments made by educators in the survey made it clear that a significant chunk of teachers are unhappy with the level of communication between EIS and themselves. They are calling for the EIS to communicate with teachers before taking any action as they do not feel their needs, thoughts and attitudes are being adequately represented by the teaching union.


The difficulty with focusing entirely on pay is that although an increase in pay may offer a small form or relief, it ignores the other glaring issues in education. A pay rise – although useful – will not address the overwhelming workloads, pupil behaviour and a lack of adequate resources… the stuff that makes the profession so challenging.


What would be more effective? Well… better investment in education so teachers have the resources they need to provide the highest quality of education; providing teachers with far more non-class contact time to manage workloads; and consistent pupil behaviour management standards throughout schools.


We have now hit the physical limit of what we can expect of our burnt-out and depleted nurses, teachers, civil servants, rail workers and mail workers who we depend on and who are crucial to the functioning of society. Workers have experienced years of underfunding, inadequate pay, long hours, and overwhelming workloads whilst expectations have only increased. They’re done with it. Can we blame them? The moral of the story is that if we want high-quality public services we should start valuing, respecting and caring for our public sector workers.

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