Recent weeks have seen government ministers and media pundits grow desperate, trotting out the most absurd lines on public sector workers striking for better pay and conditions. For Nadhim Zahawi, the man who claimed £5,822 on expenses to heat his riding stables at his second home and banked £1.3 million from an oil company while sitting as an MP, nurses demanding better than a real-terms pay cut are playing into the hands of Vladimir Putin and his plan to divide the West. His cabinet colleagues have tended to stick to the better-trodden routes, instead striking out at those on the front line of public health for putting lives at risk in taking industrial action.
The government presents us with a false dichotomy: public sector workers can either accept a pay cut and get back to work saving lives in a functioning system, or they can be greedy, abandon the public, and strike. But to make this argument is to intentionally misrepresent the link between poor pay and conditions and public safety. The desperation of the establishment to undermine working people and crush the unions that represent them pales in comparison to the desperation nurses, paramedics, and firefighters — among others — feel at the state of their services after a decade of battering. And in the face of a government that refuses to listen, strike action is their last resort.
The retention and recruitment crisis within the National Health Service (NHS) is a case in point. Over a decade of real-terms pay cuts and growing workloads has led to a self-perpetuating exodus of nurses: in the year up to June 2022, the equivalent of one in nine left the NHS. Wards, as a result, are dangerously understaffed, and those who remain in them are exhausted and, if still in training, often expected to operate above their level of competency, pushing them closer to leaving in turn. This year’s NHS staff survey found that only 21 percent of nurses felt there were enough staff for them to do their jobs properly. Things, in other words, are already unsafe — and only upping retention by improving pay and conditions can change that.
Similar situations exist across the NHS. The media is awash with stories about desperate people waiting six, eight, twenty-four, even forty hours for an ambulance to reach them, sometimes only to have to wait again in the back of that ambulance for a similar amount of time. Research from the British Heart Foundation has found that average ambulance response times for suspected heart attacks have risen to 48 minutes in England against a target of 18, and links that, alongside inaccessible care and spiraling waiting lists, to an “ongoing surge” in excess deaths. A report in November found that 160,000 more people a year are coming to harm because their ambulance can’t offload them into a hospital with enough staff or beds. A survey of by the GMB of ambulance workers this summer found that a third had witnessed cases where a patient’s death was linked to a delay.
Government ministers can talk about the lives that will be put at risk when NHS workers go on strike, but it’s their decisions that have left the country in a situation where services are so stretched and workers so exhausted that people are losing their lives regardless. For NHS workers, it isn’t a choice between running a functioning service and striking — it’s a choice between putting up with a service being strangled and trying to do something to change it.
The same is true in other public sector jobs. Ministers and tabloid papers can attempt to caricature Mick Lynch as the Grinch over strikes, but it’s their moves and those of their corporate friends that mean that, in the last five years, 674,452 train services have been removed from timetables — reducing provision by the equivalent of 36 days of nonstop strike action — and that in the last ten, fares have risen twice as fast as wages.
Services have been left not only unreliable for members of the public but also often prohibitively expensive, all while taxpayer funding for rail has more than doubled in real terms since privatization. The RMT is striking against both a real-terms pay cut and one conditional on a host of other changes — like the closure of ticket offices and a mass jobs severance program — that would make this already beleaguered train network even worse for passengers.
Ministers talk, too, about a potential fire service strike risking lives, but it is their decisions that have seen central funding for fire services in England collapse by up to 40 percent in real terms since 2010, and one in five firefighter jobs lost. Austerity, alongside decades of building deregulation, has been cited for its role in the deaths of seventy-two people in Grenfell Tower. As Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, recently put it, “We had warned that something terrible could happen, and it did.” With buildings around the country still covered in flammable cladding, he adds, “we’re flying by the skin of our teeth.”
Headline after headline warns that strikes in the NHS and beyond could lead to loss of life. The reality is that lives are needlessly lost every day in Tory Britain. Beyond the decimation of emergency services, the Tories have presided over a situation where growing poverty means life expectancy as a whole stalled before the pandemic, and in some cases decreased. It was their austerity program — currently in the process of revival — that has been linked to 330,000 excess deaths, and their former leader who announced, in the face of a virus thriving in the gaps their cuts left, that we should “let the bodies pile high.”
As millions struggle to heat their homes and put food on the table this Christmas, they now want to tell us it’s the workers trying to save the services they have decimated that are responsible for making us unsafe. Don’t let them turn the narrative around.