Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Historic nurses’ strike exacerbates UK ‘winter of discontent’

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Nurses in the United Kingdom staged the first strike in their history on Thursday, thus joining the strikes of other public sector workers, with whom the country has practically paralyzed in the middle of Christmas.

The chaos is reminiscent of the so-called “ Winter of Discontent” in the late 1970s, when widespread protests eventually brought down the Labor government of James Callaghan . Ambulance drivers, railway workers, postmen, border agents, luggage carriers and Eurostar security agents, among other professional sectors, take to the streets to demand salary improvements in the face of skyrocketing inflation that is close to 11%.

The British Royal College of Nursing (RCN), a union that represents a group, demands a 19% salary increase in response not only to the increase in inflation in recent months but to what it considers a loss of purchasing power during the last decade. The union demands an increase of 5% above the Retail Consumer Price Index, which usually guides collective negotiations and which in November reached 14%. Pat Cullen , the RCN’s general secretary, met this week without reaching an agreement with the British health minister, Steve Barclay , who has closed the door on further pay improvements.

The world’s largest economies are dealing with energy and food price pressures brought on by the war in Ukraine. But in the UK, the situation is further aggravated by the last decade of cuts . Nurses’ real pay fell by £1,800 over the last year, while paramedics’ real pay fell by £2,400. In real terms, nurses earn £5,000 a year less than in 2010 . And for midwives and paramedics, the figure rises to more than £6,000, according to analysis of official statistics by the main trade union confederation (TUC).“The failure of the ‘Tories’ to achieve a wage increase has left millions of households brutally exposed to the cost of living emergency. It’s time to reward work, not wealth. We cannot be a country where the NHS and teaching staff have to resort to food banks, while City bankers receive unlimited bonuses”, denounced Frances O’Grady , general secretary of the TUC. “Family budgets have been wrecked by skyrocketing bills and more than a decade of wage garnishment. The Conservatives have presided over the longest real wage cut in over 200 years,” she adds.

The nurses’ protest, which will be repeated on the 20th, has forced the cancellation of more than 70,000 medical visits and surgeries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland , according to Executive data. The emergencies are maintained with a level of personnel similar to that of a festive day and units such as dialysis, neonatal and intensive care continue to be active. But, despite the chaos, support for nurses on the street is particularly high: 54% of the electorate supports the strikes , demanding a salary increase compared to 23% who are against it.

The National Public Health System (NHS) has always been the great pride of the British, but it has been a patient in intensive care for a long time. The problems due to the lack of personnel are more and more pressing. Added to the stampede of European toilets caused by Brexit are the trickle of resignations by those who cannot handle any more workload. In England alone, vacancies have reached a new record with more than 133,000 full-time positions.

The Rishi Sunak Executive is now considering tightening the laws even more to even prohibit strikes in key sectors, such as the toilets. Downing Street argues that it cannot give pay increases in line with inflation. The public debt is already 97.5% of the Gross Domestic Product , close to its highest level since the 1960s, and is expected to increase in the next two years, because the Government will spend more than it will receive in taxes.

Likewise, Sunak considers that putting more money in the pockets of citizens could keep inflation high for longer. This would make things worse for everyone and increase pressure on the Bank of England to cushion price increases by raising interest rates, which would hit borrowing costs for consumers, homeowners and businesses.

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