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The UK public sector strikes: What does it have to do with Australia?

By Jack Campbell | |6 minute read

Being dubbed “the largest strike in a generation”, up to half a million public sector workers in the UK went on strike on 1 February over wages not keeping up with the rising cost of inflation and poor working conditions, according to multiple media sources.

Teachers, nurses, transport workers, civil servants, and firefighters were some of the many professionals who dropped what they were doing in an attempt to appeal to the government for some sort of resolution.

Dr Greig Taylor, School of Management and Governance lecturer at UNSW Business School, spoke with HR Leader about the significance of the industrial action, as well as how the UK’s situation correlates with the current uneasiness of trade union workers in Australia.


“That was the largest strike in the UK in quite some time. What was remarkable is you see collaboration of workers and unions across different sectors. Instead of just one industry going on strike, you’ve got several: teachers, nurses, passport officers,” said Dr Taylor.

“That’s what’s more unique; you’re seeing this unity across sectors.”

Dr Taylor said that “one-off days have a negligible impact on the economy. It has a much larger impact on the political side. It’s putting pressure on government to make some progress on pay increases.”

According to a YouGov poll from 28 November 2022, 52 per cent of the UK public believes nurses should be able to strike. Thirty-eight per cent disagreed and said they shouldn’t. This same question was posed in June 2022, finding 44 per cent agreed and the same disagreed. This shows the increasing support for the health sector.

According to the National Education Union (NEU), 23,400 schools across England and Wales were affected by the strike: “Of teachers in England, 90.44 per cent of members taking part in the ballot voted YES to taking industrial action on a turnout of 53.27 per cent,” said the NEU. Making this “the largest vote for strike action achieved by any union ever in the UK”.

Inaction from the government could have major effects on the structure of the health system in the UK, says Dr Taylor: “By underfunding schooling and health services, it creates room for the private sector to become more involved.”

While this strike was solely a UK affair, Dr Taylor said it isn’t much different to the trade union tensions we’ve been experiencing in Australia.

“It’s not a UK-specific thing. We’re seeing a similar phenomenon in Australia, particularly public sector works. Nurses, teachers, [and] transport workers have gone through the stress of the pandemic and were held up as heroes as a result, and now we’ve emerged out the other side, and we have this cost-of-living crisis, and these people are turning around and want more than thanks,” explained Dr Taylor.

“There’s a lot of parallels in the UK and Australian strikes. Inflation pressure has been placed with energy and food prices rising. These are things that can’t necessarily be controlled on state levels; it’s a global issue.”

Dr Taylor said that the UK strikes could have a worldwide effect by encouraging governments to address issues with inflation and wages.

“The UK strikes were a good set piece wind down that saw global attention and pushes the government to come to the negotiating table. If they can’t necessarily increase pay this year, they can make promises that they can do it down the road in a year or so,” he said.

“In the case of nurses and teachers in particular, there’s been a lot of underfunding to services. They’re campaigning for more than an economic and personal point of view; they genuinely care about their profession,” said Dr Taylor.

To resolve these issues both in Australia and the UK, Dr Taylor said that the government needs to be open to resolution and begin lines of communication.

He stated: “These strikes have quite a lot of public support. People who have been opposed to striking and unions are now quite pro-union. Giving everybody what they want isn’t sustainable, but at least listen to the argument.”


Industrial relations

Industrial relations is the management and evaluation of the interactions between employers, workers, and representative organisations like unions.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.