As 2022 draws to a close, Tribune looks back at ten landmark trade union victories – showing how organised workers are fighting back against greed and exploitation.

Trade unionists rally to demand better pay. (Leon Neal/Getty)

2022 has been a difficult year. It’s been a year of spiralling costs and growing fear, particularly as the heatwave of summer descended into the winter and warm banks have appeared across the country. It’s been a year of three prime ministers, in which the government has proved the only thing that can keep it united is a shared commitment to immiserating the many. But with the highest number of working days lost to strike action in a decade, it’s also been a year when the labour movement awoke from a too-long slumber and, with the public overwhelmingly behind it, began, once again, to fight back.

Across the economy, workers have been out on picket lines fighting back against the cost of living crisis class war and demanding their worth. Many of these struggles—including those being fought by rail workers, posties, nurses, paramedics, university staff, and more—are long-standing disputes with fundamental questions about our public services and in whose interest they’re run at their core. Many of these are set to continue into 2023, with their outcome remaining to be seen. It’s in the interests of us all that they win, and as always, Tribune will be behind them. 

But other disputes have been resolved this year, with workers winning industrial fights from the hospitals of London to the hotels of Loch Lomond. As we see out the closing hours of a year likely to go down in history, here are ten of the multitude of victories workers won in 2022.

1. Bus Drivers Win Higher Pay Across the Country

In January, Tracey Scholes, one of Greater Manchester’s first ever female drivers, who had worked at the same depot for 34 years, faced the sack for not being tall enough to operate Go North West’s new buses. Her fellow bus drivers and her union, Unite, would mount a campaign to defend her, and she went on to win her appeal against the dismissal.

This was just one of a number of victories for bus workers this year. In the summer, Arriva bus drivers and members of Unite in Merseyside went on strike for 29 days over a real-terms pay cut, which would end in August after they won an 11.1% pay rise. Solidarity from the people of Merseyside was crucial, with many donating money, food and drink during the four weeks of strike action.

Later, in September, Arriva bus drivers in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire found themselves engaged in a similar dispute. Tribune joined them on the picket line in Luton. Here too, solidarity from members of the public was incredible: located on a busy stretch of a main road, honks in solidarity from motorists passing the depot were frequent, picket-line pakoras were provided by a local food van, and Reggae music played from a speaker, followed by some Punjabi music, reflecting the diversity of the workers taking strike action. Buoyed by the victory of bus drivers in Merseyside, they remained united in their determination to demand better and would go on to secure pay rises between 10.4-11.4%.

More were to follow. In recent months Arriva drivers have won a 14% pay rise in Kent, and 11% in North London; Stagecoach drivers have won a 13% pay rise in Warwickshire and 10% in East London; Metroline drivers in London have secured an 11% pay rise. With bus drivers some of the worst affected by the pandemic, their successful fight for their worth is a victory for every worker.

2. Outsourced Workers in the North West Win Parity

In Covid’s wake, the injustice of outsourcing and the impact of unequal contracts on healthcare workers has been a growing source of concern. This was the case for hospital domestics at Lancashire and South Cumbria Trust, who, employed by outsourcing firm OCS, began back in May 2021 to call for parity in pay and benefits with their directly employed colleagues. 

In June 2022 OCS offered workers the same hourly pay, but still wouldn’t pay the same rates for nights, weekends, or bank holidays, or backdate the correct rate of pay. Directly employed staff also still had a higher annual leave entitlement, and full pay while sick. Doing the same work, OCS workers knew they deserved the same. 

So in June, they began a series of walkouts, coming to a total of 26 days of strike action by November. They were backed by fellow Unison members in other sectors and workers from a range of trade unions, who attended a march and rally in support. Their final win—an inflation-busting 14% pay rise, an extra week of annual leave, and the same sick pay as their in-housed colleagues—was a victory against the two-tier workforce. 

Union membership also grew by more than 50% during the dispute, and Unison members made strides in building worker power within their organisation. There are now two official union reps, who have signed up since the dispute ended. ‘It took a long time,’ Caroline*, an OCS employee, told Tribune, ‘But, finally, we got what we wanted.’

3. Firefighters Win Compensation on Discriminatory Pensions

Back in 2015, the government introduced new pension rules requiring firefighters to work to the age of 60 or take a reduced pension. Older members were allowed to remain in the older, better scheme, while younger members were required to transfer to the new scheme. According to the union, if firefighters chose to retire at the earlier pensionable age of 55, their pension would be reduced by more than 20%.

The change was subject to a legal case by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), alongside strike action, on the basis that it amounted to unlawful discrimination on the basis of age. In December 2018, the Court of Appeal ruled in the FBU’s favour. This year, in October, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) announced it had won compensation for nearly 9,000 members affected by the change with stress and anxiety related to the financial uncertainty are set to receive a payout of at least £3,750. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack pointed out that there is still further to go in the fight to put the situation right in a ‘mess of the government’s own making’, but that this was a ‘significant step’.

This win came amid a difficult year for firefighters, which, with its heatwave and resultant record wildfires, proved just how vital their work is to keeping us safe. Despite that, they have been offered yet another real-terms pay cut. FBU members have rejected the offer and are now being balloted on industrial action, in the hopes of shoring up not only their own living standards but also the future of an underfunded and neglected service.

4. Liverpool and Felixstowe Workers Stop the Docks

For many, it was during the pandemic that it became clear just how vital the shipping industry is to keeping the world running. So in September this year, faced with a real-terms pay cut despite the vital work they do, more than 500 dock workers in Liverpool went on strike. Their union, Unite, pointed out that their employer, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, had made £30 million in profit in 2021. 

The strike prompted displays of international solidarity, with dockers receiving support from longshoremen from America, who donated $15,000 to the strike fund, as well as from dockers from the likes of Spain and Denmark, who sent delegations to the picket line in solidarity. The workers celebrated a major victory in November, after securing a pay deal worth between 14.3% and 18.5%. 

The tail end of the Liverpool dockers’ first set of strikes also coincided with those at Felixstowe port, which one worker told Tribune would ‘paralyse’ around 60 percent of the UK’s containerised products going in and out of the country for at least a week. During Felixstowe’s first wave of strike action in August, which involved over 1,900 workers, Liverpool workers refused to work on any vessels diverted from Felixstowe and sent a delegation down to the picket line to show support. In December, Felixstowe port workers would also celebrate a major victory, winning 15.5%.

5. 4,800 Open University Workers Are Decasualised

As well as the falling pay and growing workload that have prompted this year’s national university strikes, one of the major problems facing workers in the higher education sector in recent years has been casualisation and precarity. Research from the UCU shows that in 2019-20, a massive 68% of research-only academic staff were on fixed-term contracts, along with 44% of teaching-only staff. 46% of universities use zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching. The precarity rife in the sector means workers constantly facing insecurity of every kind.

So it was no mean feat when at the start of August, following negotiations with university management, the University and College Union (UCU) hailed a massive win as 4,800 workers at the Open University were taken off fixed term contracts and moved onto permanent ones—a change that the union said constituted the biggest decasualisation in the history of UK higher education. As well as improved job security, staff benefited from a pay uplift of between 10-15% and additional annual leave. The effort now continues to stamp out casualisation across the sector. 

6. BT Workers Beat the Rigged Economy

This summer saw 40,000 BT and Openreach employees and members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) out in the first national telecoms strike since 1987. The strike was a response to the imposition of a pay rise of just £1,500, while energy bills and food costs continued to spiral far above that figure. For BT’s workers alone, the problem was clearly so bad that the company had to set up a food bank in the workplace—or in their words, a ‘community pantry’—to feed its own staff, earning CEO Philip Jansen the nickname ‘Foodbank Phil’. 

As CWU General Secretary Dave Ward told Tribune from the picket line outside BT Tower in July, the company had made £1.3 billion in profit in 2021, while announcing a price hike for customers of 13% from Spring 2023, epitomising the mutual interest in fair pay and fair prices between workers and customers. The workers taking part in the action were engineers and call centre workers, including 999 call handlers, one of whom wrote for Tribune about the prevalence of food bank use and Universal Credit claims among her colleagues to make up for what she called BT’s ‘low pay culture’. 

Eight days of strike action were taken altogether by BT and Openreach workers, with the company finally coming back to the table with a new offer of £3,000 from April 2022, representing between 6% and 16% depending on pay grade, which workers voted to accept in December. As Dave Ward put it, the improved pay deal would have been impossible without the determination of the workers shown on the picket line, which ‘caught the sympathy of the country, and shocked the company out of its complacency.’

7. The RMT Shows Up the Government

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) has been at the forefront of this year’s newfound trade union strength, and on the frontline of media and establishment attacks. Its dispute with Network Rail and train operating companies in England rolling on into 2023 as the government continues to block new offers, considering the ongoing disruption caused by strikes and the ongoing destruction of our rail network a worthwhile price to pay to defeat the workers. 

But RMT members have also won a number of separate victories this year, too. Eurostar security staff, on outsourced contracts with Mitie, cancelled strike action in December following an improved offer of 10%, with 29% secured for the lowest paid workers. Deals were also secured with devolved administrations, including an improved pay offer of 7-9% with Scotrail, and 6.6-9.5% with Transport for Wales. 

In other words, the RMT have settled disputes where the Department for Transport are not involved. At present, deals between rail operators and the government allows the Tories to direct how disputes are handled, and rail operators are not free to agree terms and conditions with their employees without the involvement of the Transport Secretary—and if a rail operator fails to agree a mandate with the Transport Secretary, it can face financial penalties. 

It’s clear that the government is attempting to block a deal and the RMT are under no illusions about the battles they face in the year to come. For now, though, it is a credit to RMT members and their resilience that improved pay has been achieved elsewhere—and a sign that the government shouldn’t expect workers to back down any time soon.

8. Croydon Hospital Workers Win a Whopping 24%

As with the OCS win we covered above, the damage done by the inferior contracts offered by outsourcing giants, which drive poor conditions and low pay, has been a major focus for the labour movement in recent years. Rarely are these giants bigger than G4S—but that’s who cleaners and porters at Croydon University hospital, unionised with the GMB, decided they were ready to take on in spring of this year, as the cost of living crisis began to really bite. Workers voted for strike action for improved pay, and in March, they announced a huge pay win of 24%, along with an occupational sick pay scheme worth eight sick days.

But for the workers, that wasn’t the end. This month has seen GMB members at Croydon hospital once again marching in protest, this time demanding the end goal of insourcing on NHS contracts. As regional organiser Helen O’Connor pointed out, the struggle to get private companies like G4S out of the NHS and proper treatment for NHS workers is a struggle for the existence of the NHS itself: ‘The NHS is being destroyed by cuts and privatisation and we need to oppose both inside and outside hospitals.’ Along with the fights of ambulance workers, nurses, junior doctors, and more, their struggle will continue into 2023, and we all need to stand alongside them.

9. Jacob’s Workers Stop Bosses Taking the Biscuit

In September 2021, workers at the Jacob’s factory in Liverpool’s Aintree were in uproar over management’s attempt to impose new requirements for unpaid training. By June 2022, bosses had made an offer of just 4.5% to workers, a pay rise contingent on accepting these unpaid training requirements. With the cost of living crisis spiralling and hot strike summer kicking off, the workers and their union GMB knew that just wouldn’t do.

By November, when Tribune reported on the strike, 750 workers were all out, not returning to the workplace until a deal was decided. Workers told Tribune he knew of employees there dependent on food banks, others who walked for more than an hour to work because they couldn’t afford transport, others who were having to seek debt advice.

It took 11 weeks of strike action, but an improved pay offer was finally won, with 6.5% backdated to the first of January and a £500 payment along with an additional 3% uplift for 2023 and £250. The factory workers who spoke to Tribune about the dispute cited ‘unbelievable’ support from members of the public, including those bringing food for the picket line and wood for the fire, acts of simple solidarity that allowed workers to stay strong. Their resilience is a source of inspiration for others engaged in long disputes in their respective industries—and proves that collective action pays dividends.

10. BEIS Workers Win Big

As 100,000 civil servants and PCS members gear up for strike action in 2023, back in November, their fellow trade unionists are closing out the year showing what can be achieved when workers stick together. Caterers and hospitality workers employed by services company Aramark at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy grew tired of waiting for a promised improved pay offer earlier in the year, as talks stalled, and voted for five days of strike action in November and December—a 100% positive vote on a 75% turnout.

These workers run the canteen at BEIS and provide food for trade delegations. A survey by PCS conducted in the summer found that a third of members were skipping meals because they couldn’t afford to buy food—so ‘it would be no surprise if these hard-working caterers would struggle to afford the food they serve to others,’ PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said

The threat of this strike action brought Aramark back to the negotiating table, and strike action was called off following a pay rise offer of 12%. This pay rise is a major victory for those workers struggling to make ends meet this winter—and a reminder, as we enter a new year, of the power of trade union action.

The Year Ahead

The biggest strike wave in three decades shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Teachers and firefighters are currently being balloted on strike action, soon to be joined by junior doctors, while railway workers and nurses are taking further strike action in the new year. In an ideal world, those who keep this country going shouldn’t have to withdraw their labour for better pay and conditions, but as long as the capitalist status quo continues, workers will have no choice but to fight the cost-of-living crisis through the pay packet.

This year’s victories serve as a reminder that when those in power fail us, we can use our strength in numbers to demand better. We are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge workers face in 2023, but if this year has taught us anything, it’s that power concedes nothing without demand. As we enter 2023, let’s redouble our commitment to demanding respect and dignity for those who form the very backbone of our society.

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