Winter strikes: is the UK facing a ‘Christmas of discontent’?

Mass strikes across multiple public services spell disruption on a scale not seen since 1978

Union bosses blame the government for forcing industrial action

The UK faces “extraordinary disruption” at airports and ports, as well as delays to driving tests and passport applications, as widespread industrial action prompts fears of another “winter of discontent”.

Around 100,000 civil servants from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have voted to join nurses, rail workers, university staff and others in strikes that unions warn could see the country “grind to a halt” over the next few months.

Government departments such as the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, ports, airports and coastguards could all be affected by strikes.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

No dates have been announced yet, but the PCS said the strikes would run “over the Christmas period and into the New Year”. As other unions workers prepare to carry out their own industrial action, the Conservative Party has accused unions of “shamefully trying to engineer a Christmas of discontent”, echoing the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79 that helped bring down the Labour government and usher Margaret Thatcher into power.

But the PCS said that 86% of workers who voted in the ballot had backed the strikes, describing it as the highest vote in its history. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said he had “made it clear that if other unions are on strike we would want to join them”.

The industrial action comes as new figures from the Office for National Statistics showed the UK economy contracted by 0.2% between July and September, “signalling the start of a recession”, said Politics Home. In response, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt told Sky News the UK faced a “tough road ahead”.

See more

What did the papers say?

In conjunction with the activities of other unions, the vote to strike by the UK’s biggest union for civil servants has been designed to “inflict maximum chaos”, said The Daily Telegraph.

Nurses, civil servants, train and bus drivers, postal staff “and even Asda workers” have either already agreed to strike or are considering it, said the Daily Mail, “in what critics claimed was an attempt to force the first ‘general strike’ in nearly 100 years”.

A meeting to discuss co-ordinated industrial action between unions will be held on Monday among those who have either already committed to strikes or are currently preparing votes for their members. This also includes the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, Aslef, the union for train drivers, the GMB and three teacher unions

The vote by the PCS comes immediately after a similar move by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which voted this week to strike for the first time in its 106-year history, “leading to fears that death rates will rise if the walkouts spread”, the Daily Mail said.

Other health service workers “could well follow suit”, said The Guardian. “About 350,000 NHS employees from more than 250 health trusts and boards across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are being asked to vote for strike action over pay this winter, according to Unison,” said the paper.

Royal Mail workers are also set to strike on Saturday and Monday, at least 70,000 university staff will walk out later this month and broad disruption is expected on the London Underground and National Rail networks and as part of a dispute about pensions, pay and jobs.

Striking workers at Heathrow could disrupt travel plans for football fans hoping to go to the World Cup in Qatar. Dock workers, river inspectors, flood forecasting officers, coastal risk management officers and delivery workers are also considering industrial action.

What next?

It has been decades since the UK experienced industrial unrest “on anything like the scale seen during the 1978-79 winter”, said the Financial Times (FT). But with inflation at a 40-year high, “disruption comparable to 1978 now looks plausible”, said the paper.

The backdrop to the strikes is a “dispiriting combination of long-term pay restraint, the challenges of working in overstretched public services, and the long shadow of the pandemic”, said Heather Stewart in The Guardian. Union bosses point the finger of blame squarely at the Conservative government.

Keir Starmer, meanwhile, told the TUC Congress last month that Labour was on the side of “working people”. However, said The Sunday Times in an editorial, “working people include those inconvenienced as well as those on picket lines”.

Between now and the next election, said Stephen Bush in the FT, Labour politicians will say that “these strikes and public service pressures are the product of Conservative economic choices”. And in response the government will insist that the fault lies with Labour for their ongoing empowerment of unions to carry out industrial action.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.