Britain is facing a torrid month of industrial action and disruption before Christmas, with nurses likely to join postal workers, education and rail staff in a wave of strikes that will peak during the busiest weeks for office parties and festive shopping.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is expected to announce unprecedented industrial action after the passing of a deadline given to ministers following a strike ballot over a fortnight ago.
It is likely to be the first in a series of strikes over the winter and into the spring by NHS staff, including junior doctors and ambulance workers.
The expected move came as postal workers, university staff and Scottish schoolteachers went on strike on Thursday, while rail unions reaffirmed plans for eight days of national strikes despite a “positive” meeting with ministers.
Although unions have said there are no plans for general strikes, several have talked of coordinating industrial action to maximise disruption and political impact. The RMT leader, Mick Lynch, has called for “a wave of action” on behalf of low-paid workers, a phrase echoed by the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, although she said synchronisation was not always necessarily the most effective strategy.
After a meeting with transport secretary, Mark Harper, on Thursday, Lynch said the minister had “started a dialogue”, and “got rid of the bellicose nonsense” under recent predecessor Grant Shapps.
However, Lynch ruled out calling off the eight days of strikes in December and January. He said: “If we call off the strikes, we’ll never get a settlement … My members won’t forgive me. I’ve given a commitment – until we get a tangible outcome, the action will be on.”
Harper described the meeting at the Department for Transport as “constructive”, adding: “There is a deal to be done, and I believe we will get there – I want to facilitate the RMT and the employers to reach an agreement and end the dispute for the benefit of the travelling public.”
Harper is due to meet the general secretary of train drivers union Aslef, Mick Whelan, next week, after another 24-hour drivers’ strike this Saturday 26 November, which will halt services on lines across Britain.
Meanwhile, there were picket lines outside schools, universities and mail sorting centres at the start of the latest wave of industrial action on Thursday.
Up to 2.5 million students were expected to face disruption in what was billed as the biggest strike in the history of UK higher education.
About 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU), including lecturers, librarians and researchers, started a 48-hour walkout on Thursday, with another one-day strike planned for next Wednesday, in a dispute over pay, pensions and contracts.
Jo Grady, general secretary of UCU, said: “If university vice-chancellors don’t get serious, our message is simple: this bout of strike action will be just the beginning.”
University administrators, cleaners, security and catering staff in Unison are also taking industrial action over pay at 19 universities.
In Scotland, schoolchildren stayed at home as teachers across the country staged their first national strike over pay in almost 40 years, after dismissing the latest pay offer as an “insult”.
Just a few primary schools in Orkney and Shetland opened as normal on Thursday, as thousands of members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) took part in a one-day strike. Two more school strikes by other unions are scheduled in December.
Tens of thousands of members of the Communications Workers Union working for Royal Mail also walked out on Thursday, in the first of 10 days of strikes before Christmas. Strikes are expected to affect deliveries from the peak Black Friday shopping day this week, with the final action due to take place on Christmas Eve.
The CWU general secretary, Dave Ward, said from a London picket line yesterday that Royal Mail was not paying overtime for overloaded workers and accused them of a “psychological attack”. The CWU has rejected a 9%, 18-month pay deal, saying plans to alter working conditions by Royal Mail would make it a “gig-economy style” employer.
The economic impact of the strikes remains uncertain, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), whose growth figures have previously estimated the hit from shutdowns such as the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in September.
“There is a lot of displacement with activity taking place either before or after the days when strikes are taking place,” a spokesperson said. The ONS has only recently restarted collecting data for strikes after a pause during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the four months from June to September almost three-quarters of a million days were lost through industrial action.
Despite being on course to be the highest figures for more than a decade, they are much lower than in the peak years of strikes in the 1970s and 1980s. A total of 29m days were lost to industrial action in 1979 – the year of the winter of discontent – and 27m were lost during the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-5.