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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Archie Bland

Wednesday briefing: A guide to the numbers behind the strikes

A rally by teachers in Edinburgh last week.
A rally by teachers in Edinburgh last week, while teachers in England Wales are expected to strike today. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Good morning. If you were thinking of using a train, crossing a border, or taking your kids to school in the UK today, you’d better check your plans: those are just three of the sectors affected by strikes involving up to half a million people, the single biggest day of industrial action in the UK for more than a decade.

Today’s strikes – mostly in England and Wales, with some schools and train services affected in Scotland – are very far from the end of the story: more industrial action, including in the NHS, is planned throughout February and March, and talks are said to be “going backwards”.

Yesterday, Downing Street claimed that the extent of the disruption was why “negotiations rather than picket lines are the right approach” – but unions accuse the government of failing to take those negotiations seriously, and rallies are also planned today to protest plans for a new law on minimum service levels. There is no sign that the current impasse will end soon.

With strikes rumbling on for so long and such diametrically opposed claims narrating them, it can be easy to lose sight of the reality underpinning the unrest - but there are some concrete numbers that can help to make sense of it. Today’s newsletter is a guide to those numbers, from the extent of the disruption to the real-terms pay cuts that lie behind it. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. UK politics | All three Whitehall mandarins who worked with Dominic Raab while he was holding cabinet positions have now been interviewed by the official inquiry into his alleged bullying, the Guardian has learned. Their testimony is believed to have focused on what warnings they gave Raab at the time about his alleged behaviour.

  2. Hillsborough | The national body for police chief constables has issued an official apology for police failures “over many years” after the Hillsborough disaster, where 97 people were killed in 1989. The apology was made at the launch of the long-awaited report into the police’s handling of the disaster.

  3. US news | Actor Alec Baldwin and a weapons specialist have been formally charged with involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on a New Mexico movie set, according to US court documents filed by prosecutors on Tuesday.

  4. Myanmar | The UK, US and Canada have imposed fresh sanctions against Myanmar’s military, including measures aimed at stopping the supply of aviation fuel to its air force, which is accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian areas. The sanctions were announced two years on from the military’s coup in February 2021.

  5. Gene editing | The dodo, a Mauritian bird last seen in the 17th century, will be brought back to at least a semblance of life if attempts by a gene editing company are successful. Scientists said that it had been possible to sequence the dodo’s genome from specimens but emphasised that it would not be an exact replacement for the extinct bird.

In depth: The figures that explain the UK’s biggest strike day in a decade

A picket line outside University College Hospital in London as nurses strike.
The majority of the public said in January that they strongly or ‘somewhat’ support striking nurses. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA


The scale of the strikes

475,000 Approximate number of workers expected to go on strike on Wednesday – the single biggest day of industrial action for more than a decade. 200,000 teachers – Sally Weale has a useful explainer on school closures here - and 100,000 civil servants including border force workers will be joined by university lecturers, security guards and train drivers when they walk out today. While the disruption is significant, it appears to be some way short of a “de facto general strike”, as the government has claimed.

467,000 The estimated total number of working days lost to strike action by 197,000 workers in November, according to the Office for National Statistics – the most recent set of full-month statistics available.

1m Union estimate of the number of working days lost in December, the worst single-month disruption since 1989.

11.7m The number of days lost in September 1979, the highest single-month total on record. As well as the sheer number of striking workers, industrial action in the 1970s was also typically more impactful because of how long the walkouts lasted: in 1972, for example, 280,000 coal miners went on strike for seven weeks.

£1.7bn Lower estimate of the total direct and indirect cost of strikes to UK GDP over eight months to January this year, according to analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. That amounts to about 0.1% of the UK’s expected GDP over the same period, with the value of the whole UK economy standing at about £2.5tn.


The power of unions

23.1% Union membership among UK employees in 2021, the lowest rate on record, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (pdf). In 1979 that figure was 50%, with the subsequent decline representing a drop from a peak of 13.2 million union members to about 6.4 million.

12.8% Private-sector union membership in 2021, against 50.1% in the public sector. 26% of women are union members, against 20% of men. 29% of black workers are union members, against 23% of white workers, 20.6% of mixed-race and Asian heritage workers, and 15% of those from Chinese or other ethnic backgrounds. Just 24% of union members are under 35, against 37% of the overall workforce. Employees earning less than £250 a week or more than £1,000 a week are much less likely to be members than those in the middle.

14.8% Superiority of earnings for public-sector union members in 2021 against non-members. In contrast, in the private sector, union members earn 4.7% less than non-union members. But BEIS statisticians caution that the figures are likely to be influenced by factors other than union membership, such as their relative age.

40% The proportion of a union’s total membership that must vote in favour of a strike for a ballot to be valid, with a 50% turnout required overall and a majority in favour among those who do vote. The government has suggested that it has to bring in “minimum service levels” to “protect the lives and the livelihoods of the British people” and points to what it describes as similar rules in comparable European countries. But critics argue that the UK’s proposed minimum service levels would cover a far broader range of “critical” services, and the European Trade Union Confederation says that the UK “has among the most draconian restrictions on the right to strike in Europe”.

26.9% The proportion of employees covered by collective bargaining agreements in the UK, according to the OECD, against 54% in Germany, 80.1% in Spain, 98% in France and 100% in Italy.


The impact of real pay cuts

Ambulance workers on a picket line in Belfast last week.
Ambulance workers are among those who enjoy a majority of public support. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

33% The increase in real wages – the value of wages after inflation is factored in – across all workers between 1970 and 2007, according to the Resolution Foundation.

4.3% The real-terms drop in public-sector pay between 2009 and 2022, according to Guardian analysis of ONS data last July.

3% The decline in real wages in 2022, the biggest drop since 1977, according to the Trades Union Congress. Public-sector pay is the worst affected, with the average key worker £180 a month worse off than a year earlier. In the three months to November, private-sector wage growth stood at 7.2% before inflation was taken into account, against 3.3% in the public sector. This was against a headline inflation rate in January of 10.7%, amounting to a real-terms cut for both groups.

£9,200 The typical annual shortfall in income against what workers could have expected if pay growth had continued at pre-financial crisis levels, according to the Resolution Foundation.

22% The amount by which low-income households are poorer than their counterparts in France (about £3,800 a year), with a 21% gap to their German equivalents.

£28bn Figure circulated by ministers on the cost of giving all public-sector workers an inflation-matching pay rise – equivalent to £1,000 per household. But according to fact-checking organisation Full Fact, this figure fails to take into account the amount which would be returned to the public purse in tax. Full Fact also notes that the government figure relates to the total difference between 2022/23 and what might be offered for 2023/24, whereas many current pay disputes relate to the existing 2022/23 pay offer. An increase to match inflation from current offers for 2022/23 would cost considerably less – around £13bn, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (pdf). But the Treasury says that reopening this year’s pay process is not on the table.


Public opinion on strikes

34% The proportion of the public who said unions play a negative role in society in November, against 26% in the same YouGov poll in June. In November, 35% said they played a positive role, against 32% in June, with the number who said they did not know or that unions were neither positive nor negative declining.

28% The proportion saying unions played a negative role in the same poll conducted this month – a 6% drop. Meanwhile, the proportion who said they played a positive role has risen by two points to 34%.

65% The proportion of the public who said they either strongly or “somewhat” support striking nurses in the January poll. Ambulance workers, firefighters, teachers and postal workers all enjoy a majority of public support once “don’t knows” are excluded. Strikes by driving examiners, baggage handlers, Transport for London workers and university staff are less popular. YouGov says that the answers correlate strongly with the extent to which respondents say they believe each group contributes to society, but do not appear to be linked to the perceived level of disruption caused.

57% The proportion of the public who blame the government for nurses’ strikes, according to a recent poll by Ipsos. James Johnson, of the pollsters JL Partners, told Heather Stewart: “People are adding it to a long list of ‘things wrong with the country’.”

What else we’ve been reading

André Leon Talley.
André Leon Talley. Photograph: Jonathan Becker/Courtesy of Christie’s
  • If you’re normally left cold by stories about celebrity memorabilia auctions, make an exception for Jess Cartner-Morley on the sale of former American Vogue creative director André Leon Talley’s belongings – and how, rather than the “overdressed and overwrought” figure of legend (above), “the luxury wardrobe on which he splashed his fortune [serves] to portray him in a more flattering light”. Archie

  • Anna Delvey, Elizabeth Holmes, Fyre festival – we have long been at peak scammer saturation. But in a bizarre turn of events, it seems as though quite a lot of people knowingly buy into being conned. Amelia Tait looks at why. Nimo

  • Marina Hyde is relatably unmoored by that wild Telegraph front page picture of two masked people sitting in a bath, supposedly somehow exonerating Prince Andrew from, er, “sex frolicking” therein. “Unbelievably, actual lawyers had something to do with this nutso line of defence,” she writes. Archie

  • Pamela Anderson is arguably one of the most recognisable figures of the last three decades - her likeness has been repackaged and sold with and without her consent. Adrian Horton spoke to Ryan White, the director of a new Netflix documentary, Pamela: a Love Story, in which Anderson is able to reclaim her narrative and tell her own story. Nimo

  • An all-consuming need for entertainment has warped our understanding of reality, Megan Garber writes in the Atlantic (£). This long read demonstrates the various ways that “immersive amusement” has changed our lives and the power it holds. Garber writes: “Each invitation to be entertained reinforces an impulse: to seek diversion whenever possible, to avoid tedium at all costs.” Nimo


Enzo Fernandez celebrates during the World Cup final.
Enzo Fernandez celebrates during the World Cup final. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Transfer deadline day | After dramatic late talks, Chelsea broke the British transfer record to sign Argentina’s Enzo Fernández (above) for €121m (£106.8m) from Benfica, taking the club’s spending under Todd Boehly’s ownership to a staggering £500m. Meanwhile, Tottenham signed Pedro Porro from Sporting in a €45m (£39.7m) deal. In other deals, Nottingham Forest signed Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Keylor Navas, while Southampton confirmed the signing of two forwards, Kamaldeen Sulemana and Paul Onuachu, at the last minute.

Football | Newcastle cruised into the Carabao Cup final after two early goals from Sean Longstaff sank Southampton in the semi-final second leg. Che Adams pulled one back for the visitors but it was not enough to avoid a 2-1 loss on the night and a 3-1 aggregate defeat.

Olympics | A week after seeming to open the door for Russia and Belarus to compete at the 2024 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it is standing by sanctions imposed over the invasion of Ukraine. After an outcry from Kyiv over reports that the two countries’ athletes might be allowed to earn slots for Paris 2024 through Asian qualifying systems, the IOC tweeted that the sanctions were “not negotiable”.

The front pages

Guardian front page, Wednesday 1 February 2023

“Half a million to strike as unions warn talks are ‘going backwards’” is our Guardian front-page lead this morning. The Telegraph has “Teachers in walkout could still be paid”. The Daily Mail brands it a “Cynical walkout that betrays our children … again”. The Metro has “You still don’t get it” as “TV Kate grills Hancock”. The Financial Times splashes with “Brussels pressed to rein in promises fuelling Ukraine’s fast-track EU hopes”. The i says “Angry Tories confront Hunt over refusal to cut taxes” while the Daily Express reports a “‘Staggering’ 16.7% rise in food prices”. “Mummy’s lost” – the Sun reports on the disappearance of Nicola Bulley in Lancashire. “Britain and EU set for Northern Ireland deal” is the big story in the Times. The Daily Mirror reports on the “Tory misconduct probe” with “Raab ‘bullied staff like an abusive husband’”.

Today in Focus

Man typing at his laptop computer at night

The scammers forced to steal people’s life savings

‘Pig butchering’ crypto scams, where victims are wooed for months before being fleeced, are ruining people’s lives. But how are criminal gangs exploiting trafficking victims – and using fake UK firms – to steal millions of pounds?

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

Steve Bell on bad news about the UK’s economic prospects – cartoon

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Charlie Clarke.
Charlie Clarke he will use the payment for the pendant and chain, now in the British Museum, to fund his son’s education. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Charlie Clarke (above), who owns a cafe in Birmingham, had been metal detecting for just six months when he made an almost unbelievable discovery in a Warwickshire field. Clarke had found a huge early Tudor heart-shaped pendant and chain that bears the initials and symbols of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon – and shrieked when he recognised the magnitude of what he had discovered. The jewellery is made of 300 grams of 24-carat gold, decorated with a bush bearing the Tudor rose and a pomegranate.

An artefact of this size and importance from the Renaissance period has not been found in Britain for almost three decades, said British Museum curator Rachel King. The discovery was so shocking that she had to sit down when she found out the news – and careful scientific analysis has proved the necklace to be authentic. No one knows what it was doing in Warwickshire, but experts are trying to piece the story together. The pendant has not been valued yet, but whatever it is sold for will be split between Clarke and the owner of the field. After hearing the story, Clarke’s four-year-old son also wants to be a treasure hunter when he’s older.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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