“You cannot run an economy on goodwill… but that’s what the Government has been doing – expecting teachers, train drivers and nurses just to give more and more and more,” says Sadie Fulton, Policy and Campaigns Support officer of the South West’s Trade Unions Congress (TUC).
I spoke to Fulton on College Green, where some 6,000 people had gathered after marching through Bristol city centre for the National Strike Day rally on Wednesday (1 February). Meanwhile, about 70 pickets were held outside workplaces across the city.
It was a historic day – the biggest day of strike action this country has seen in more than a decade. Half a million workers across the UK downed tools to demand better pay, decent working conditions, funding for essential services and to defend the right to strike.
As the cost of living rises, workers are demanding pay rises that match the cost of inflation. The TUC, a coordinating body of 48 unions that called the National Strike Rally, is calling for a £15 minimum wage. Anything below an 11% pay rise, Fulton tells me, is a pay cut in real terms.
“The atmosphere is so electric. People are just ready to push back and say we’ve had enough. [The government] really cannot keep on treating us this way.” says Fulton.
This week’s historic rally brought together action from the National Education Union (NEU) representing teachers, the University and Colleges Union (UCU), civil servants from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), railway workers from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and train drivers from Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF).
The Cable spoke to union reps and strikers, who are calling for better pay and protesting the Government’s proposed minimum service “anti-strike laws”. While their specific situations differed, one message rang loud and clear: people have had enough.
‘The whole system needs to change’ – teachers
I met Sauda Kyalambuka, Bristol NEU branch president and her young daughter Amala on College Green. I ask Amala how she feels about her teachers not working today. “I feel a bit sad for my teachers,” she says, “but I hope they’ll think it was worth it because if the Government listens to us, we could get better funding and we can have more money for our schools.”
Her mother, a qualified teacher for 35 years, adds: “Schools funding has been cut since Tory austerity, we haven’t got very much funding. It’s a knock on effect – if children can’t get a good quality education, their life chances are being hampered.”
After suffering a decade of real terms pay cuts, pay for classroom teachers has fallen by 14%. While a 5% pay rise was promised last year, but schools may need to find that extra cash from their own budget – which has already been decimated.
I speak to Leo Firkin, an RS teacher at a school in Thornbury and union rep for the NEU. For him, the subject of pay increases has to be taken in the context of wider systemic problems.
“The CEO’s of academy chains are on six figure salaries! What they are doing is streamlining and standardising the curriculum, so that you don’t need trained teachers to deliver it. You deliver the lesson like you deliver a pizza,” he says.
Meanwhile, teachers in the classroom are working harder than ever.
“I have a headache every single day after work. We have bigger classrooms, we don’t have any time to do trips. Everyone is so frantic,” Firkin adds. “They’ve shortened lunch breaks so you could have 30 mins to eat your lunch, go to the toilet, do some photocopying, talk to a crying child, plan your next lesson. Then you go home and do two hours of work to keep up!”
A pay increase would help, Firkin says, but it would be a “sticking plaster” in lieu of properly funding education. “I just don’t think the Tories believe in public education,” he adds. “If they did, they’d fund it.”
“Lots of things need to change, but first things first, let’s win this argument about funding – because some schools are going to get to the end of this year, and they won’t have any heating or glue sticks or be able to photocopy.”
‘This is pension theft’ – University staff
On Wednesday, 70,000 university workers for 150 UK universities joined the strike. In the crowd I spot Vicky Canning, who reads criminology at the University of Bristol. We’d met at the last strike in 2019 – I ask whether anything had changed since then.
“Things have gotten worse,” she says. “Those at the higher echelons don’t seem to realise the pressures we’re under. During and after lockdown, the stress to continue as if everything was normal has had significant consequences on the mental health of staff and students.
“And whilst we were trying to take care of students our pensions are being taken away from us. As a criminologist, we’d call this theft. And that’s what this is.”
Her colleague Ann Singleton, a reader of migration studies at Bristol University agrees. “I can’t afford to retire yet because I’m still paying off my mortgage, but when I do – I’ll be the last of that generation to have a decent pension.”
“We are working harder and harder, the insecurity of funding, increasing number of casualisation of contracts, colleagues having to work 2 or 3 jobs at different universities just to make ends meet.”
‘We deserve more than a 2% pay rise’ – PCS workers
Civil servants have been offered the lowest pay rise, of just 2%. This follows almost 12 years of ongoing cuts and pay freezes.
“In April this year, 46,000 of our members will be on the legal minimum wage” Mark Baker, a PCS union rep, tells me. “These are people who are helping people with their tax return forms, passports, driving licences, helping unemployed people with finding work or benefits, working in the culture sector in museums and tourist sites – doing really important work.
“Our members were not, we were not furloughed, we worked through the pandemic and we deserve more than a 2% pay rise,” he adds.
The PCS are doing a ‘rolling action,’ where different workplaces will carry out actions at different times. Hannah David, also from PCS, explains why: “We do the kind of crucial behind the scenes work that is not always recognised, so people can’t see the impact of the cuts to HMRC, DWP and planners are really damaging society.”
Other grievances she tells me are the attempts to reduce redundancy pay at a time when tens of thousands of civil servants could face redundancy, and the fact that since 2019, civil servants have been overpaying on their pension contributions by 2%.
‘We’re one of the more militant unions’ – ASLEF and the RMT
Seb Michnowicz is a union rep for ASLEF, which along with the RMT held pickets outside Temple meads and Parkway in the early hours.
“We chose not to argue for a pay rise during the pandemic,” says Michnowicz, “but now inflation is spiralling out of control, and the offer of a 4% is well below inflation and just unacceptable.”
Working on Sunday, increased cover, overtime hours – are conditions his union are intent on fighting. And his union is no stranger to fighting for their rights. “We’re one of the more militant unions,” he tells me, having fought against a raft of measures since the 90s when rail companies were privatised. “And it works – we have some of the best pensions in the country because of it.”
The strike wave shows no signs of stopping
Trade Unions were decimated under Thatcher. The memory of collective action disappeared with our heavy industries, and a swathe of restrictive legislation making industrial action nigh on impossible.
The National Strike rally was undeniable political: on College Green, you could cut the anti-Tory sentiment with a knife. Anger was aimed at the government’s Strikes (Minimum Service) Bill, which if passed into law would see workers forced to provide a minimum service on strike days or face the sack.
The Government shows no sign of budging. On wages, Conservative ministers maintain that inflation that should go down rather than raising wages to meet it. But this doesn’t fly for the strikers I spoke to, and they’re in it for the long game.
I cover trade unions and strikes for the Bristol Cable. I want to hear from workers and union reps: get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org