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Nurses, railroad engineers and postal workers are striking in the U.K.


The United Kingdom is contending with a series of labor strikes. Nurses, rail engineers, postal workers - they've all walked off the job. More strikes are scheduled for next week and over Christmas. Reporter Willem Marx is based in London and joins us. Willem, thanks so much for being with us.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: So what's it like to be there now? What's the effect of these strikes?

MARX: Well, if you are trying to access hospitals over the past week, it's been quite a challenging time, certainly for parents with young children that may have been unwell. You've had nurses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, meaning that non-urgent hospital care was put on hold for several days. The nursing union agreed with the country's National Health Service they would step in though, if needed to save lives.

Then you've got the rail engineers and other rail workers. They've been on strike. That's meant the vast majority of England's trains have not run yesterday or indeed will not run today. Some major routes have seen no service at all. Others have seen a skeletal timetable. And the biggest rail union is planning strikes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, which could severely disrupt holiday plans for many people. That's not to mention the postal workers who've announced seven strike days this month, as well as bus drivers, border force agents and indeed, ambulance drivers.

SIMON: And why so many different workers on strike at the same time?

MARX: Well, Scott, the simple answer is inflation. You know, wages are not keeping up with the very high rates of inflation in the UK. Given the tight labor market, employees and the unions that represent them have leverage to demand either better pay or insist on retaining working conditions or improving them. On the railways in particular, unions are insisting this is about safety and about maintaining schedules, while nurses and ambulance drivers are saying their systems are already overstretched, and patients will continue to suffer the consequences if higher pay is not introduced, essentially to encourage better recruitment and indeed retention.

SIMON: How's the government reacted so far?

MARX: Well, across the board in the UK, there's been quite remarkable support for these striking workers, particularly the nurses, and that sympathy makes this a politically quite perilous situation for the Conservative government of Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, particularly in light of his party's perceived mismanagement of the British economy this year. In terms of a specific reaction, some ministers have got involved directly in negotiations between workers and their employees at times. But ultimately the message has been that however difficult these circumstances may be for these workers and however important their roles might be, there's simply not enough budget around to spare for the billions in higher public sector wages that would be needed to keep up with that currently high inflation rate.

SIMON: And Willem, what are the prospects of the workers' demands being met given the Sunak government and Britain's finances?

MARX: Well, there've been a series of pay offers that some types of workers have already accepted - for instance, on the Eurostar trains to Europe, as well as some of the ground handlers at London's Heathrow Airport. But a lot of other workers - teachers, civil servants, medical professionals - who rely on the government to increase their pay levels are finding that, as you sort of allude to there, the Conservative government, with all its financial difficulties this year, is taking a rather hard line on offering wage increases that might match or exceed those inflation levels.

SIMON: Willem Marx in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARX: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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