Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

The truth about Britain’s entitled strikers

Junior doctors march through Trafalgar Square (Credit: Getty images)

Striking was part of my childhood. One of my first memories is of walking through Middlesbrough town centre and seeing people with ‘Coal Not Dole’ badges, holding buckets and asking us to ‘Dig Deep for the Miners’. Long before I left primary school, I knew what it meant to be a ‘scab’ and why it was important never to cross a picket line. I backed the men who looked like my dad, men who worked hard but needed more money for their families, over the bosses that wanted to keep them poor.

The world has moved on but the class divide continues and I have not changed sides. At the same time, I am not foolish enough to think that today’s strikes by junior doctors, teachers, nurses and university lecturers are of a piece with the mass walkouts of the 1980s. The demand for higher wages is still there, of course, as are the ballots, picket lines and placards. But what this all means has changed completely. Today’s strikers are members of a professional middle class pulling rank at the expense of those less well off.

In 1979, 13.2 million UK employees belonged to a trade union, but by 2019-20, this figure had dropped to 6.67 million despite the numbers of those in work having grown. Today’s smaller unions are a far cry from yesteryear’s mass membership organisations. A third of professional workers are union members, making this the most highly unionised occupational group. Those with a university degree are significantly more likely to belong to a union than those without traditional academic qualifications (around 30 per cent compared to 15 per cent). Union members also have higher salaries: only 12 per cent of people earning under £250 per week belong to a union, compared to 30 per cent of those earning between £500 and £999.  

Of course, the middle class have every right to organise, withdraw their labour and demand better pay. Neither teachers nor nurses are responsible for spiralling inflation and their aspiration for a better standard of living is to be welcomed. The problem is not that today’s strikers are middle class but that in fighting for their own interests they are attacking the livelihood and ambitions of the working class.

Take junior doctors. They garner sympathy by highlighting a minimal hourly pay rate while failing to mention pension contributions, rapidly escalating pay scales and the many opportunities for salary-enhancing that set them in an income bracket far removed from most people. As doctors are employed by the NHS, there is no profit-margin to be cut into for funding pay rises. Instead, the cost will be met by the public: taxpayers statistically likely to earn far less than the doctors they are funding.

Meanwhile, it is the public – not shareholders or factory owners – who pay the price for strike action. Almost 200,000 hospital appointments were cancelled and rescheduled as a result of last week’s 96 hour walk-out. Each of these cancellations means a person’s life is put on hold. It might mean someone unable to work, or a sick child deteriorating further. In tragic cases these cancelled appointments hasten death. The number of excess deaths recorded during the last round of strike action, and in the following week, were 11.1 per cent above the seasonal average.

Or take schools. Children missed weeks away from the classroom while schools closed due to Covid lockdowns. Education union leaders pushed for ever tougher measures to be in place before face-to-face teaching could resume. A significant number of children have still not returned to school and many more are yet to catch up with missed learning. For teachers to strike now is a kick in the teeth to the nation’s children.

Strikes are supposed to be disruptive, cry the union-backers. But wealthy people secure private medical care and send their children to fee-paying schools where teachers are less likely to strike. Poorer people can afford no such luxuries and suffer most when public services are withdrawn.

It would be possible for disruption to be directed elsewhere. Everyone agrees that professional jobs nowadays come with inordinate amounts of paperwork as well as onerous requirements for staff to undertake diversity training programmes. If doctors or lecturers want to cause disruption while still teaching or treating patients they could boycott all unnecessary training and form-filling. That they do not do this suggests a warped understanding of the priorities associated with their role. Today’s trade unions sometimes promote the same divisive ideas about race and gender that are found in diversity workshops. Convinced of their moral superiority, union members are now striking to secure wages that will set them financially apart from the rest of society.

Today’s professional, middle class strikers show little interest in seeing life improve for everyone. They do not want to discuss fully reforming the health service, creating a more productive economy or kicking indoctrination out of the classroom. Far from being a progressive demand to increase everyone’s living standards, today’s strikers want a bigger slice of a smaller pie in order to consolidate their own social and economic status. Meanwhile, ordinary people suffer. These strikers are not working class heroes but a temper-tantruming cos-playing elite.