Public Largely Supportive of the Right of Public Workers to Strike, But Also Support Required Minimum Service Levels

January 19, 2023
R&WS Research Team
Economic Policy | Employment | NHS | Transport | UK Government | UK Politics

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With prices rising by 10.7% over the last year, workers across the UK are striking in a push for wage increases. Public sector workers have been at the forefront of the national debate over wages, firstly because the government has considerable sway—if not outright control—over their pay packets, and secondly because the vast majority of Britons regularly interact with publicly-owned or operated services, like the NHS. In the last few months, strikes among transport workers and healthcare workers, in particular, have featured prominently in the national debate. 

The latest research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that 47% of Britons support public sector workers going on strike to secure pay rises in line with inflation, while half as many (23%) oppose this action. Support is twice as pronounced among Labour voters (at 70%) than among Conservative voters (at 31%), a plurality of whom are opposed to the strikes (41%).

Regarding specific salary levels, Britons are understandably more supportive of those on lower incomes going on strike than they are of those on higher incomes. A majority of the public would support workers in income brackets up to £24,999 taking part in industrial action and would oppose workers earning more than £50,000 from doing the same. A plurality of 41%, meanwhile, would support workers earning between £25,000 and £49,999 going on strike, with 27% opposed.

According to the Office of National Statistics, the average annual salary for nursing professionals is £31,676 in the United Kingdom, £25,134 for non-paramedic ambulance staff (like ambulance drivers), £35,056 for rail travel assistants, and £49,714 for rail transport operatives.

With respect to specific professions, support levels for striking healthcare and education workers are at 59% and 48% respectively, up from 47% and 40% respectively seven months ago. We also find majority support in Britain for strikes amongst ambulance drivers (59%), and fire and rescue workers (55%).

Rail workers, however, have seen a drop in public support. This recent development may point to weakening support among Britons for strike action like that done by the RMT, who held strikes that caused travel disruption throughout the Christmas period.

Despite the British public generally supporting strike action by public sector workers, their support does appear conditional. Our polling finds that the majority of Britons support frontline worker unions ensuring a ‘minimum service level’ during their strike action. 63% of respondents believe unions should plan for a minimum level, while only 11% disagree. 

As such, recent legislation proposed by Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government, which would allow managers in key public services to sack employees who go on strike, may be supported by the public. 

There remains a great deal of ambiguity, however, about what the exact wording of the legislation will be.  As the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy outlined last week, Business Secretary Grant Shapps would get to decide what counts as a “minimum service level” under the law. That the Business Secretary has discretion over what level of service the law will consider “minimum” might affect whether voters approve of the rule in practice. Unions for their part consider the bill heavy-handed and think it likely to exacerbate industrial disputes. In any case, Britons seem, in principle, largely in favour of front-line services being required to continue to operate during strike action.

Altogether, the British public is supportive of public sector workers like teachers and ambulance drivers striking in pursuit of higher wages. Britons are not supportive, however, of those on higher earnings going on strike, nor would they support strikes to the detriment of a minimum level of service on essential public services.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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