Britain Gears Up for a Summer of Labor Discontent

LONDON — It was one of the more unusual public displays in a city long used to noisy and colorful demonstrations: protesters wearing flowing black gowns and curled horsehair wigs waving placards on Monday outside a London courthouse.

But with Britain gearing up for a “summer of discontent” andlabor unrest growing as the cost of living soars, even the lawyers are going on strike.

Criminal-defense attorneys are just the latest group to demand more pay, following the biggest strikes by rail workers in a generation, in June. Staff at the national airline, British Airways; state schoolteachers; and health and postal workers have also threatened walkouts.

As energy costs surge, inflation gallops toward double figures, and taxes and the cost of loans increase, Britons are demanding higher wages with a militancy not seen in years.

Speculation that the country will be crippled by strikes this summer has raised fears of a return to the 1970s, when labor unrest left trash uncollected in the streets, prevented the dead from being buried and dealt a fatal blow to the government of the day.

“It’s a moment of malaise,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at Nottingham University, in central England. He said that the unrest came as the government’s authority had been whittled away by recent scandals, but also because of surging inflation, the long-term effects of the pandemic and a realization of the economic costs of leaving the European Union last year.

“It’s the context in which this is happening,” Professor Fielding said, “and this poses a grave threat to a government which is associated with all these things.”

Even some allies of Prime Minister Boris Johnson seem to agree. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Daniel Hannan, a Brexit enthusiast and member of the House of Lords, bemoaned a feeling of “chaos — the sense that Britain is falling apart as taxes, inflation and strikes begin their grisly spiral.”

Shoppers browsing secondhand furniture on a street in Clacton-on-Sea, England. Britain is gearing up for a “summer of discontent,” with widespread labor unrest expected as the cost of living soars.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Public services, which have long been under strain, seem to be crumbling in some cases. Nearly 6.5 million people in England are waiting for hospital treatment (typically knee or hip replacements, or eye surgery) and there are 100,000 staff vacancies in the country’s health care system, according to the British Medical Association, which represents doctors.

Britons are now advised to allow 10 weeks if they want to renew their passports because of a backlog of requests. The average wait to take a test for a driver’s license is 14 weeks, the government says.

But the return of strike action is the most visible symbol of the malaise confronting Britons — and it is affecting visitors, too.

Steven Freudmann, the chairman of the Institute of Travel and Tourism, a lobbying group, said that the number of tourist arrivals was around 30 percent to 40 percent lower than it was before the pandemic and that, while there were several causes — including the continuing impact of the coronavirus — the rail strike and threatened further disruption “is certainly one of the factors.”

A resolution to the demands of the various groups of workers looks far off. While inflation is eroding spending power across the country, the government is determined to curb raises for fears that they would push inflation higher and prompt ever greater pay demands.

The return of strike action is the most visible symbol of the malaise confronting Britons — and it is affecting visitors, too.Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

Yet Mr. Johnson also sees a political opportunity in the disruption, and he has tried to pin the blame on the opposition Labour Party, which has strong links to trade unions and is wary of condemning striking workers.

Mr. Johnson said that there had been “unbelievable silence from the leader of the Labour Party,” Keir Starmer. In Parliament on June 22, he accused Labour politicians of “backing the strikers, while we back the strivers.”

Mr. Starmer, who blames the government for failing to resolve the rail dispute, ordered his lawmakers not to join protests alongside striking workers, only to be embarrassed when some ignored his instructions.

But the strikes create problems for Mr. Johnson, too. Last year, he promised to build a high wage, high skill economy, a pledge that has vaporized, only to be replaced with a demand for pay restraint.

He also faces accusations of double standards because he plans to protect retirees from inflation with a matching rise in the state pension. Critics see that move as a way to favor a group of voters important to Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party.

Speculation that the country will be crippled by strikes this summer has raised fears of a return to the 1970s, when labor unrest left trash uncollected in the streets and dealt a fatal blow to the government of the day.Credit…Maurice Hibberd/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And the array of different groups demanding better pay, including middle-class professionals, complicates the political narrative for Mr. Johnson.

The lawyers who are on strike rely on government funding to pay them to act for clients who lack the money to finance their own legal defense. They have been striking to demand an increase in those payments, but it is hard to characterize any attorney as a left-wing agitator.

And in Scotland, even the police are embroiled in a pay dispute and, while not threatening to strike, they say they will “withdraw goodwill” by, among other things, finishing their duties strictly at the time marked on their schedules.

Mr. Johnson’s critics argue that inflation was caused by external factors like the skyrocketing energy costs and the war in Ukraine, rather than pay increases that have generally stayed well below inflation. Corporate profits are a bigger driver of inflation than wages, they say.

They also blame the government for having suppressed the pay of public sector employees for years, pushing workers to their financial limits and prompting higher demands now.

“Today’s inflation is not driven by nurses and care workers wanting enough pay to keep food on the table,” said Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a federation of labor groups. “The main drivers are global energy prices and pandemic interruptions to supply chains.”

She added that refusing to increase pay now could prompt reduced spending and tip Britain into recession.

Waterloo Station in London during rail strikes last month. A resolution to the demands of the various groups of workers looks far off. Credit…Matt Dunham/Associated Press

“The cost-of-living crisis has hit the U.K. particularly hard because it follows a decade of pay suppression,” she said. In most leading economies, she added, “wages grew in the last decade, but not the U.K.”

Professor Fielding said that memories of the 1970s haunted the British political class, but he noted that there were big differences between then and now. Around 23 percent of workers are currently unionized, compared with around half 50 years ago, he said, and worries about union militancy have receded.

Polls tend to show the public split over opinions about striking rail workers, and Mr. Johnson’s attempts to blame Labour and the unions for the disruption seem to have failed, so far.

But the opposition has failed to capitalize on a moment of weakness for Mr. Johnson, said Professor Fielding, adding that “without a counternarrative, the danger for the opposition is that the public might start to drift toward the government’s explanations.”

It may not become clear for months whom Britons end up blaming for the labor unrest while the country navigates a variety of disputes that threaten to inconvenience the lives of millions.

As the season of unrest unfolds, Britons may have to look for small consolations where they can find them.

One place — at least for drivers — might be Wiltshire, in the west of England, where the traffic wardens who write tickets for parking violations are also threatening to go on strike.

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