From barristers to refuse collectors, Britons strike en masse

Workers are livid that employers are refusing to pay more against the backdrop of wage-crushing inflation.

FILE PHOTO: Criminal barristers strike outside the 'Old Bailey' in London, Britain, June 27, 2022. REUTERS/John Sibley/File Photo
Criminal barristers strike outside the 'Old Bailey' in London, Britain, on June 27, 2022 [File: John Sibley/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – When Britain’s barristers declared they would go on strike, the public was divided.

Many questioned their motive, given they are widely believed to be well-paid legal professionals, while others said the move was justified as the United Kingdom’s economic outlook worsens and in the context of their particular protest.

Thousands of criminal barristers that represent defendants who receive state-funded legal aid will strike from next week, indefinitely, escalating their years-long dispute with the justice ministry over what they say is over inadequate pay and conditions.

“It’s just now or never,” Grace Cowell, a junior barrister who is joining the strikes, told Al Jazeera.

“There’s such a narrative of fat-cat barristers, but you look at people who just do [legal aid-funded cases], the average earnings for the first three years of their career is 12,200 pounds [$14,400 a year].

“We’re going to end up with … the same people who have a trust fund and who can, frankly, afford not to earn any money.”

According to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), barristers’ incomes have fallen by about 30 percent since 2006 and many are in personal debt.

The strike comes as wage-crushing inflation fears rock Britain, one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Analysts predict the rate of price rises could soar to 18 percent next year, a 50-year high, as energy costs jump. Inflation rates hit 10.1 percent in July – five times the Bank of England’s target.

Frustrated that wages have remained stagnant for the past decade, it is not just the barristers who are taking action.

Throughout the British summer, as temperatures rose to record levels, so too has a sense of anger.

Employees of several sectors have either gone on strike or voted for industrial action, including public transport staff, postmen and women, teachers, journalists, cargo port workers, and, in Scotland, refuse collectors.

“[The] government has known about poor levels of pay for years because we have taken action on it for years, and yet they failed to address it,” a CBA spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

“We’ve asked for 25 percent well before the inflation issue, because we’ve seen our average earnings decline by 28 percent over a decade. So already, we were behind times.

“They’re [criminal barristers] not expecting any more sympathy than anyone else but they do expect the rates of pay as you would expect a doctor to be paid properly for the specialist work they do.”

Seventy-nine percent of CBA members voted for strike action, which will coincide with the announcement of the new Conservative Party leader and prime minister to replace scandal-hit Boris Johnson.

While the Ministry of Justice has offered an uplift of 15 percent in fees, the CBA said that was insufficient as the rate would apply to new cases and not the post-pandemic backlog of 58,000 cases.

‘People are sick of a business elite’

Meanwhile, thousands of Royal Mail workers went on strike on Friday demanding a wage increase in line with inflation, after rejecting a pay rise offer of 5 percent.

Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which organised the strike, told Al Jazeera: “Like millions of people in this country, postal workers are being pushed to the edge.

“People are sick of a business elite that is completely out of touch with ordinary people and their lives.

“Things are getting harder and harder for most people so that a tiny elite can have a better time than ever. But people are standing up against this disgraceful state of affairs and are saying that enough is enough.”

As postal workers protested, Britain was jolted further by news of an energy price cap, a maximum level companies can charge households which will be reviewed every three months, announced by the energy regulator Ofgem.

From October until the end of December, energy bills for millions of households will increase to an average of 3,549 pounds ($4,198) per year from the current 1,971 pounds ($2,331).

A postal worker makes a delivery in London
A postal worker makes a delivery in London, UK, July 21, 2022 [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

Earlier this month, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) leader Mick Lynch told Al Jazeera that trade unions were an organic response to what goes on in work and capitalism.

“You don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that,” he said.

“When you suppress [trade unions], you suppress people’s freedom. People have got to wake up to that, and their rights are being corroded.”

Last week, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged Lynch to put Network Rail’s “fair” 8 percent pay rise offer to his members.

“RMT is prolonging these unnecessary strikes which are a kick in the teeth to workers who cannot get to their own jobs,” he said.

But with inflation predicted at 18 percent in 2023 and no sign energy prices will ease, Lynch and the growing number of dissatisfied British workers are unlikely to accept offers that fail to give them a sense of security.

Source: Al Jazeera