Young workers on why they’re striking: “this is the only weapon we have”
As the government doubles down on its response to industrial action, we meet some of the many young workers joining the picket line.
There are certain industries that keep the UK running. Teachers give us the skills we need to get a job, rail workers make sure we get to them on time as adults. Nurses care for us when we’re sick, postmen and women deliver letters that remind us about our appointments.
That’s why the government’s response to the recent, widespread strikes has been so galling. After months of industrial action that’s seen rail services grind to a halt and nurses make the difficult decision to join the picket line, the government’s approach has been to ignore and penalise. Most recently, plans were announced to introduce anti-strike legislation, requiring workers to ensure minimum service levels are met during planned action. If they don’t? Employers will have the power to sack employees and sue unions.
Needless to say, workers are furious – and they’re not backing down any time soon. With industrial action planned throughout January and talks of a coordinated day of action across all industries, we spoke to young people both on the picket line and providing support in vital roles.
Adam, 27, train driver in Manchester
I’ve worked in rail for five years now. I started in catering, then I was a conductor and now I’m a driver. I was part of the RMT union when the strikes started [in June 2022] and took part because of the attacks on our jobs and the safety of the railway. We hadn’t had a pay rise for three years at that point and they were already threatening to close ticket offices and introduce more driver-only trains. Pay and pensions obviously played a part, but what’s the point in a pay rise without a job?
The picket lines have been amazing. There’s solidarity between everyone, no matter what your job is or what company you work for. There have been some wet and cold days, but it’s a boost that so many people need right now as morale is at rock bottom across the whole industry. My employer has been so supportive and I get the feeling they’re on our side, although they haven’t explicitly said this. But I know colleagues from different train companies have had different experiences.
When I got a driver’s job I made the very difficult decision to move to ASLEF, as they’re solely for train drivers. But I’ll always support my colleagues in the RMT [which is the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers] and anyone who wants to fight for better for themselves.
I wish the public understood that we’re striking for them more than anyone. I completely understand their frustrations. They rely on us to get them to work, to see their families and every other reason you could think of. It’s mainly about safety; you only need to look back at the safety record of the railways in the ’80s and ’90s to see what could happen again under this “modernisation” programme. We aren’t against modernisation – in fact, both the RMT and ASLEF are fighting for more modernisation and being knocked back.
The government’s response is a shambles. They know they’ll probably lose the next election so don’t want to spend any money. They’ll leave it to Labour to sort out so they can kick off about how much they’ve spent.
Aoibhinn Sweeney, 26, teacher in Glasgow
I graduated in 2020, so I’m now in my third year of teaching. It was both an easy and difficult decision to strike. I believe it’s important for workers to stand up and fight for their rights, however, I found it difficult as I knew there would be a financial implication. We knowingly take a pay cut from the next wage slip, but we believe that the short-term loss will be worth a long-term gain. We didn’t cause the problems, so we should not have to pay for them. Our demands are that the government [in this instance the Scottish government in Holyrood rather than Westminster] give all teachers in Scotland a 10 per cent pay rise, as our current salaries do not coincide with the rate of inflation.
The picket line is tough. We stand outside in whatever weather comes our way. We get thumbs down, shaking heads and disapproving looks from drivers passing by. However, we do get some supportive waves and beeps, too! My employer has been very understanding and supportive of the strike action, which has been a nice boost for those of us who are out on the picket lines.
I think the new “emergency” legislation which restricts the right to strike is unjust. People deserve the choice to stand up and fight for their rights and this legislation is jeopardising that.
Harry, 29, postman in Lancaster
I’ve worked for Royal Mail coming up to 10 years. I’m taking part in the strikes because I hate what is becoming of a public service that’s been around for 500 years and is being single-handedly torn apart by a clueless CEO. This is the first time we’ve gone on strike since I started. The decision to strike wasn’t very difficult at all; this is the only weapon we have to fight with. It’s pretty good craic on the picket line, but often cold and wet. That hasn’t deterred a great number of members, plus supporters turning up in solidarity. We had all overtime stopped leading up to Christmas, which prevented some of the public getting Christmas cards and parcels.
My union’s demands are [for our employers to guarantee] the protection of our terms and conditions, that any necessary changes to the business are implemented working alongside the union, and a pay rise rather than a real terms pay cut. We posties know the business has to change and we aren’t against it, but it just has to be done sensibly. Changes need to protect the daily service we provide to the public rather than being turned into an “Uberised” business model. People need to realise it’s not a race to the bottom and that, just because we demand more, doesn’t mean we’re taking anything away from them.
The government’s response has been pathetic, but as to be expected from this awful shower of shit that masquerades as a government. The new legislation is absolute scumbag tactics. What sort of country is this becoming where the workers who keep it running have no rights to voice their displeasure in working conditions?
If people want to support us they can donate to the many strike funds or turn up to picket lines – snacks are always appreciated. And beep your horn if you drive past a picket.
Amy*, 31, NHS ward manager in London
I’ve worked in the NHS for 10 years. My role [in the strike action] was to manage the department with minimal staffing levels on the day, so that other nurses could strike. The nurses who did strike found it very difficult to make the decision, as they knew it would affect patient care and lead to the cancellation of appointments and treatment. However, the current working conditions are resulting in poor retention and recruitment, burnout issues and low morale which not only affects staff but the service users.
The union is supportive and understanding towards staff who do or don’t want to strike. They worked with our employer and agreed to derogate some departments where vital cancer surgery could not be delayed. When I visited the picket line, staff felt like they were being encouraged and supported and it was their opportunity to have a voice.
I wish the public understood that staff are striking for fair pay and the future of the healthcare workforce, thus the safety of their patients. The NHS needs to attract educated and talented individuals into the profession. Nurses are exhausted and overwhelmed. They’ve generally received a positive response; a high majority of the public were supportive and were visiting the picket line.
In terms of the government’s response, I’m frustrated that they suggest it’s up to the NHS Pay Review Body [to set pay levels] and annoyed that, when they eventually agreed to negotiate, they suggested that they will only increase pay when productivity is improved. Try telling a nurse or paramedic after a 15 hour shift and no break that they should improve their productivity. A one-off payment will not protect the future nurses joining the profession. The new legislation is outrageous and very anti-British. Cough up, Sunak.
*Name has been changed for anonymity.