"Over the last 12 years, Britain has experienced the longest phase of real wage stagnation since the early 19th century," Scott Lavery, a lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield, told DW. "Since the financial crisis, we've seen sustained real wage decline."
Real incomes — after accounting for inflation — have fallen 5.1% since December 2007, according to UK government figures. This coupled with the inflation crisis, which Lavery said was "eroding living standards dramatically," has left British workers struggling to stay afloat.
"In France, there is a sense of defending an existing standard of living, while in the UK, people feel that whatever used to exist has gone," Sam Moorecroft, vice president of the Trades Union Council in the city of Sheffield, told DW. "When Thatcher defeated the miners' in the 1980s, many believed that the trade union movement had been completely defeated. But now, there is a move to return to the same level of union participation as the past," Moorecroft added.
Moorecroft noted how non-unionized workplaces are increasingly mobilizing for better pay and conditions, citing a recent strike at Amazon's largest UK fulfillment center, in Coventry. Around 300 workers at the 1,400-strong warehouse walked out several times over the past two months over low wages and grueling round-the-clock shift patterns.
While the US tech firm's French and German workers have previously staged several strikes, particularly around the Black Friday sales, Amazon has so far refused to recognize Britain's GMB union, which fights for the rights of the firm's employees in the UK.
Unions are reaching out to younger workers, who are more likely to be on the minimum wage, and a third of whom are on zero-hours contracts. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) calculated recently that nearly 90% of those under 30 on low to median incomes in Britain work in the private sector, which is mostly non-unionized.
The Low Pay Commission, which advises the UK government, found last month that many UK employers were failing to incorporate annual hikes to the national minimum wage — a phenomenon known as wage theft. Before the pandemic, around 22% of minimum wage earners were underpaid but by April 2022, that figure had grown to almost a third.
Public support for walkouts in the UK has always been mixed as memories of the Winter of Discontent linger. During the coldest months of 1978-9, the country was brought to a standstill by large-scale private and public sector strikes that caused food shortages, weeks of uncollected garbage and, in one city, the dead to lay unburied. This time, however, with public services already defective, the cost of living crisis hitting everyone's pockets and living standards lower than a decade ago, the public's backing for strikes is noticeably higher.
A poll by Sky News in January found that 63% of Britons strongly support or somewhat support walkouts by healthcare workers, with 49% backing wider public sector action.
"There is certainly a sense that those core public sector workers that kept the economy running during the pandemic have strong public support ... particularly nurses, despite their strikes having potentially life or death consequences," Lavery said.
Lavery told DW, "The UK already has some of the most restrictive anti-union legislation in the Western world and Sunak is trying to tighten up further ... so he's far from being a peacemaker."