Over the last year inflation has surged and the cost of living has risen sharply for workers in Britain, meanwhile companies across many sectors have raked in huge profits, bosses and shareholders have taken large payouts, and the government has been exposed handing out enormous sums to their profiteering mates. This follows on from 40 years where workers have suffered under the impacts of a rightwing political and economic project that has not only driven down wages, but also purposefully allowed our public services to break in order to fuel discontent and support for further privatisation. In response, hundreds of thousands of workers in Britain, many in the public sector and recently privatised industries, have gone on strike to demand their pay at the very least keeps up with inflation and the rising cost of living.

This remarkable upturn in strike action has already returned significant pay rises in some workplaces and has thrown those employers refusing to settle into crisis, along with the government, which is not only the employer of many workers currently on strike, such as the nurses, and ambulance drivers, but has also put itself further into the firing line by blocking the privatised rail companies from agreeing a deal with railway workers. Moreover, many of the disputes have levelled demands not just over improving the pay of the workers involved, but also at a political level over the state of public services and working conditions in this country. This has and continues to inspire a broader class-wide will to fight.

The impact these strikes are having has rightly buoyed spirits. But there is much more to be done if workers are to emerge as the winning side after this cost of living crisis: a number of the major active disputes remain to be resolved, and workers risk losing their current advantage as these fights become drawn out if they cannot land knockout blows. Meanwhile, several other unions are just now entering the fray and need to ensure they can land effective blows on their employers too.

The current level of action is impressive and the workers taking strike action, particularly those in the RMT and the CWU who have shouldered the largest number of national strike days so far, deserve immense respect for the efforts they have made. However, despite additional public sector unions joining the fight and increasing pressure on the government, the current level of action will likely not be sufficient to achieve a resounding victory across all disputes.

Sustaining and intensifying the strikes and deepening the crisis for employers and the government is key to winning more of these disputes and resolving the cost of living crisis in favour of workers. If that can be done then it will lead to significant broader gains for left-wing politics in this country. But to do that will require all of us putting our shoulders to the wheel. This article proposes some key ways that workers in dispute can strengthen their strikes and also how supporters can help in ways that go beyond turning out to picket lines.

Increase the intensity of strike action by each union:

So far the major national strikes have been by:

  • Around 55,000 railway workers, predominantly in the RMT, but also ASLEF, TSSA and Unite.

  • 115,000 postal workers in the CWU.

  • 40,000 BT and Openreach workers in the CWU (this dispute has now been settled).

  • 70,000 higher education workers in the UCU.

  • Around 10,000 nurses in the RCN have struck so far, out of the 465,000 membership, with larger numbers expected in future strikes.

  • 25,000 ambulance service workers in UNISON, GMB and Unite.

  • Sections of the 100,000 civil service workers in the PCS union.

There have also been fairly large strikes by workers such as HGV drivers, dockers, bus drivers and bin collectors. Meanwhile, 350,000 teachers in the NEU, 32,000 firefighters in the FBU and junior doctors in the BMA have been balloting for strike with ballots closing at various points in January. Unfortunately the NASUWT, which represents 150,000 teachers, announced this week that they did not pass the turnout threshold with their ballot. However, their members will be able to take action alongside NEU members assuming the NEU ballot passes the threshold.1

For workers to win a strike, employers need to be scared that they are going to experience serious disruption and that the costs of threatened upcoming disruption will be greater than what they believe it would cost them to concede to the workers’ demands. The same is true for a dispute with the Government.

This isn’t always a neat financial equation to be worked out in terms of the cost in pounds of a concession and the cost in pounds that a strike can cause, although this is always a key starting point in any dispute. Both disruption and concession costs should be thought of as not only financial, but also potentially reputational, political, psychological or otherwise.

For example, a CEO might worry that conceding a dispute would undermine their legitimacy with a key group of shareholders who are very anti-trade unions, and therefore might be willing to stomach higher than expected disruption costs in an effort to avert that. This is an example of a non-financial concession cost. On the flipside, it might be that the decisive factor in a union winning a dispute is imposing a personal cost on a key decision maker, for example organising actions that wreck a particular company project that the CEO has staked their reputation on (even if not that financially important to the company), or that targets them personally in their life outside of work. This is an example of a non-financial disruption cost.

Strikes happen when an employer and their workers have a different analysis of the power the workers have to cause significant disruption costs for the employer. Disputes are often resolved either just before a strike is due to begin - if the employer becomes seriously worried by the threat of action and gives in - or just after a strike starts - if an employer realises the strike disruption is more credible than they initially thought and gives in.

Where employers don’t concede early on after a strike has started, that means that the employer thinks they can weather whatever the union has currently threatened. Sometimes the employer has got that assessment wrong, but sometimes they have got it right. What that means is that after an initial period of action, if workers want the employer to concede, they need to be able to credibly threaten to escalate their actions and escalate the disruption costs for the employer.

It is currently quite common for unions to organise single days of strike action that have a similar effect to organising a rally or protest, primarily aiming to send a symbolic message to the public. This can cause reputational and political damage to the employer and is a form of disruption, but depending on the employer it can be quite limited in its impact. Moreover, it often also has diminishing impact when repeated, as once you have shamed an employer once on an issue, unless you are very creative, it can be hard to land further media hits on them on the same topic and the story can lose its shock value.

Generally, a much more powerful approach is to plan for strike action that aims to directly disrupt the functioning of an organisation, as well as or instead of imposing reputational damage.

This might mean organising short strikes to coincide with key moments in a production process or with important events in an organisation’s calendar. Or more typically it involves longer periods of strike that fully shut down operations. This sort of strike action can cause a whole range of disruption costs for an employer, such as financial costs, huge psychological stresses due to having to try to keep a workplace with no staff running, and more.

As a general rule, the level of intensity in terms of the number of days of strike action workers take is a key factor in how disruptive a strike becomes for the employer. And to take this argument about strike intensity a step further: continuous strike action (without breaks) is generally more disruptive than short, discontinuous bursts of strikes, as disruption costs often build up and get worse and worse for the employer as a strike goes on. It is often said that taking continuous, indefinite strike action from the start of a dispute can result in less strike days overall than taking bursts of discontinuous strike action, as it can put sufficient pressure on an employer to lead to a quicker win. Moreover, it gives less time for the employer to prepare for strikes and can help with keeping morale up as all workers are out together.

One exception to this is when spread-out days of strike will cause problems for the employer that take time to solve after each day of strike action has ended, and will continue to impact normal operations. An example of this is on the railways, where after a strike day trains will often be in the wrong place. This means that services would still be disrupted over several days, even if the strike is not ongoing over that period.

Each workplace is different and it is important when planning a strike to think through precisely how you can maximise the disruption costs to the employer through your actions. Rank and file workers are generally best placed to work out creative local strike tactics that can maximise disruption costs, as they know their own particular workplaces and their weak spots better than union officials at the national level (although at the same time the sort of creative thinking needed for generating effective local tactics is often strengthened when informed by advice from experienced militants).

Bearing that in mind, the general rule given above that a high intensity of strike action is key to maximising disruption costs to the employer stands. Following that logic, increasing the intensity of current strikes will be key to winning these disputes.

So far, different unions have taken different approaches to this question of strike intensity:

  • The RMT has organised several rounds of strike action since the summer, consisting of eleven 24 hour strikes between June and November and four 48 hour strikes in December, making use of the disruption caused by trains being left across the country to magnify the effect. The union hasn’t yet opted for continuous action, preferring to space out their strikes into rounds of action to give time for other unions in other sectors to ballot and join the fight.

  • The CWU has organised several rounds of strike action in the Post Office and Royal Mail, with short bursts of several days of action in the Summer and Autumn and then six days of strike in December. They have not currently announced any action for the new year.

  • The UCU has organised one round of strike action so far in November, consisting of several days of action. Their Higher Education Committee voted on Thursday to take 18 days of strike action in February and March (after scaling back from an earlier plan to take indefinite action).

  • The RCN has organised two one-day strikes in December in some hospitals. They are planning similar action in January. They have been slowed down by the difficulties of negotiating minimum staffing arrangements with employers during their strikes, which has stretched capacity and prevented nurses from striking at all hospitals where they have members at the same time.

  • Ambulance service workers in Unison, GMB and Unite struck on 21 December and on 11 January for one day.

  • PCS is carrying out longer bursts of strike action in some civil service departments, such as the Rural Payments Agency which is striking for 16 days across December and January. Further dates for other departments are yet to be announced.

As you can see, most of these disputes could go up a notch in intensity, and several have quite a few notches to go. Workers in these unions need to be considering how they can increase that intensity and talking with colleagues and fellow union members to make the case for escalation and how to sustain it. Ambulance workers and nurses in particular should be organising their colleagues to back much more sustained and intense rounds of action, and pushing their leaderships to get behind this. Workers in the NEU and FBU should be doing the same in preparation for their disputes getting started. Meanwhile, those workers that have recently stepped up the intensity will need to think about how to sustain and build upon it.

The main barrier to this is of course the costs sustained action imposes on workers (and on union strike funds). Sustaining these strikes will require serious sacrifices from the workers taking action. While it’s true that more intense strike action can result in victory with less total strike days than long drawn out strikes, the cost is borne over a much shorter period, which is a scary thing to face. Another major barrier is morale and confidence in the union’s plan to win the dispute. A further barrier in many unions is political, with workers and/or union leaderships sometimes seeing bosses as partners, rather than as enemies, and therefore preferring more restrained strategies for action.

There are short-term and long-term solutions to these challenges. Right now, one of the main things that workers and supporters can do to try to tackle these problems is to engage in a lot of frank and open discussions with co-workers, in any union meetings you go to and through one to one organising conversations. Talking through ideas for how to win the dispute, making sure co-workers are fully informed of plans for action, taking on board their ideas and listening to their reservations, encouraging coworkers to understand the importance of their active participation in the fight - all of these things can help workers to be prepared to make bigger sacrifices and take more risks.

In all of the unions these sorts of conversations will be currently ongoing to varying degrees. The capacity of officials, union staff and local reps always runs short in this area during a dispute as there is so much to get done, so even if your union feels super-organised, the more workers (and supporters) who step up to take on the task of having organising conversations with coworkers, the better. If you are a member of a striking union, then now is the time to step up and have those conversations, whether through getting involved in a formal structure like a strike committee, or just informally by talking to colleagues you know about strike plans.

You can also use the strike days that have already been planned to hold mass meetings with co-workers, on the picket line or somewhere warm afterwards. This is a great way to sustain morale and also an opportunity to engage in discussions and collective education around strategy and the idea of escalation. If you can get good turnout to upcoming picket lines, then that makes this work easier.

If you aren’t going on strike in your own workplace but want to support others, you can also play a role in this through visiting picket lines and having conversations with strikers about their plans. Just turning up and being there can help boost morale, but even better is to find some strikers to chat to one-on-one or in a small group, and try to ask them to talk you through the challenges they are facing with their strike and their ideas for overcoming them. For many workers on strike currently this is their first time, so having these political and strategic conversations is really important. This is also a great way to learn more yourself.

It’s worth saying that while we want to boost morale and encourage strikers in these conversations, we should avoid cheerleading the strikes, often that rings hollow and doesn’t have the desired effect. Moreover, as Angry Workers have argued , there is a lack of forums in which workers can self-critically reflect on their own strikes, and helping to create spaces for this is a key task for supporters of the strikes.

Another key way supporters can help is by helping workers to deal with loss of earnings, through raising contributions for strike funds and through running events like communal meals or parties. Through these events you can not only raise funds, but also striking workers can come along and eat and have a good time as cheaply as possible. We need a serious push across the country by activists to organise activities such as this.

Taking direct action in addition to strikes:

Alongside increasing the intensity of strikes, the other major tool workers and their supporters can use to increase disruption costs to an employer is direct action. What I mean by ‘direct action’ here is collective action that seeks to impose disruption costs on the employer, as opposed to symbolic actions that seek to communicate a particular message. Symbolic actions such as rallies and protests can be very useful, but frequently this is the only type of action that unions will organise when there are many other useful tactics we should be making use of.

Direct action can take a range of forms, and have different goals and different levels of risk involved. Workers and supporters could take actions that intensify the disruption to their workplace that is already occurring due to a strike. This could include mass pickets or protests that shut down entrances or key entry/exit roads, or occupations and sit-ins, or alarm pulls, or locking doors and gates with chains, or telephone blockades, or blocking toilets and other forms of making a mess. For example, ACORN activists in Leeds recently blockaded the entrance to a postal depot to prevent scab vans from entering during a strike by CWU members. In a similar vein, striking bus drivers might find it handy for mass pickets to blockade entry roads to their bus depots.

Workers and supporters can also take actions that disrupt other arms of a business or organisation that they work for, where the strike isn’t currently ongoing. For instance, striking university workers might take action to shut down production of a movie that has paid large sums to film on the campus, or to shut down building work where the university is developing a new site. As another example, last year supporters of striking food delivery couriers in the IWGB working for a company called Stuart staged a sit-in at a depot run by DPD, Stuart’s parent company.

Workers and supporters can take actions that put additional pressure on key decision-makers by targeting other things those decision-makers care about. An example could be workers organising a protest targeting the premises of another business owned by key shareholders in the company they work for.

Workers and supporters can take actions that put additional pressure on key decision-makers personally by targeting them individually at work or in their lives outside of work. For instance, organising a march on the boss at work. Or handing out leaflets about the boss’s misdeeds to their neighbours around where they live or the congregation at the church they attend. One group of activists arranged for a samba band to routinely follow a senior manager from work to their home each day after work.

There are many different types of action that can be taken. Planning it requires spending some time researching and discussing what the weak points of a decision-maker are, and what they really care about. From there, you can come up with a range of ideas for collective actions, with varying degrees of risk, and then work out what people are up for doing.

These sorts of actions can be highly effective for strengthening a strike. Some of them you will want to keep secret and let the impact speak for themselves. Others, such as leafleting the boss’s church congregation, you might want to announce to the boss in advance, as the moment between the threat of action and it happening is a useful opportunity for them to change their minds and concede to your demands. Once an action like this is done, you need to be able to threaten and execute further direct actions that continue to up the pressure, as otherwise the employer will see it as a price they have already paid, rather than a reason to concede going forwards.

Co-workers may be cautious about taking these sorts of actions themselves as they can feel more risky and quite personal. People are used to the idea of striking, but not always to the idea of going all out like this. Having thorough discussions with workers about the risks of different tactics is vital in order to work through these fears. Not everyone will be up for everything, but with discussion and careful plans to manage risks people will often be up for more than you think.

We shouldn’t see it as an ‘either/or’ between strikes or direct action. During strike days is a great time to plan and then execute direct actions with workers as you will have large numbers of people available to take part - far more than during normal times. Some workplaces require pickets all day due to shift patterns where workers come in throughout the day, but at most workplaces you can picket in the morning on a strike day and then use the rest of the day for direct action, as well as for discussion and collective political education.

Supporters can and should get involved in this. Supporters can often take actions that may be more risky for workers to take. Doing so can also encourage workers who are under-confident to see the potential of taking such actions themselves. The key thing is to find ways to liaise with strikers discreetly so you can be sure actions you are planning won’t damage their dispute. But also be careful how you do so if you are taking riskier types of action - you don’t want to leave a paper trail that could put the strikers at risk, unless they are fully aware and happy to take that risk.

A good way to organise this sort of action is to call a cross-union meeting focused on organising direct actions. This can be a good space for strikers to swap ideas and brainstorm. It can also be a place for supporters who aren’t sure how to help to plug in and work out how they can help. While you might not want to announce really risky actions publicly in a forum like this, it can also be a space to identify people you can tap up later for riskier actions. Another advantage of organising a cross-union space is that you can encourage workers who aren’t confident to take risky action at their own workplace to arrange ‘swaps’, where they commit to taking risky actions in support of another dispute and for that to be reciprocal, thereby lowering the risks for both sides and building up their confidence in taking direct action themselves. Moreover, spaces like this can also be a forum to plan strike fundraising activities and other forms of support, like communal meals and parties.

Local groups of progressive political organisations like Enough is Enough, People’s Assembly or Momentum could all be well-placed to take up this sort of activity in a joined up way, and many of these types of action can be carried out by workers during strike days, making the most of that time freed up from work.

Increase the number of unions taking strike action and coordinate strike days:

As more workers begin to take strike action, it boosts morale for those already on strike. It multiplies the political and ideological impact of the strikes. It makes it harder for agencies to provide scabs as they become overstretched. It builds a bigger army of workers who can support each other with direct action and other forms of solidarity. It puts more pressure on the Government and makes it harder for them to single out individual unions like the RMT, as they are currently trying to do. The more workers who join this current strike wave, the stronger it will become.

So far there have been several phases of strike action, through the summer, autumn and winter. We are about to enter another phase over the coming few months. Due to the various legal obstacles put in place by successive governments, organising official strike action takes large unions several months. Unions that start preparing for action now may be ready only in time for the end of this current phase or the start of the next one. On that basis, workers in sectors that aren’t striking yet need to get going now in order to be ready for and part of this coordinated push.

There are some major organised sectors that aren’t yet out on strike or balloting to do so, despite suffering the same problems of below inflation pay as other workers. Local government workers in UNISON, energy workers in Unite and GMB, retail and food workers in USDAW, and so on. Workers and activists need to agitate now among co-workers to push for action and to push union leaderships to support it. This will be a challenge, but if successful it will have a huge impact. Even if those pushing for action fail, it can trigger significant internal change in their unions over the longer term, as started to happen in the RCN after the ‘NHS Workers Say No’ movement in 2020 demonstrated how angry and ready for action nurses across the country were.

Coordinating between unions so strikes take place on the same days can also have a powerful impact, allowing for workers at different workplaces to visit each others’ picket lines and join up for demonstrations, joint actions or collective education. Coordinated action can also have a magnified effect when it takes place in different parts of the same company or in companies that are linked together, either through being part of the same supply chain or through being owned by the same shareholders.

The more unions that are taking strike action and the higher intensity their strikes, the easier this sort of coordination is. Nonetheless, workers need to organise for this within their unions as given the legal hoops union officials have to jump through to give notice for industrial action, this sort of consideration can be easily forgotten or left too late to coordinate. Moreover, so far the discussion around coordination has mainly focused on coordination around symbolic action, such as the RMT, CWU and UCU striking on the same days or the upcoming joint strike by UCU, NEU and PCS workers and TUC demonstration on 1 February, rather than on workers in the same sectors or supply chain striking at the same time. It is hard to plan that sort of action on a short time scale, but where possible workers should be on the look out for where this kind of coordination is possible and advocating for it within their unions and across unions.

Building and maintaining mass popular support

In every dispute there is a battle over how that dispute is understood by the wider public. Winning that battle is important to sustain the confidence of workers taking part and because strong public support can help put pressure on key decision-makers in its own right. On the flip side, a major challenge we face is that the government is already trying to pit striking workers in the public sector against the users of public services.

It is crucial for the unions to bring the public with us. The battle over how a dispute is understood takes place at the national level in the media and also on the local level in a number of forums. Union leaders have an important role to play in intervening in the media. However, rank and file workers and supporters also have a number of ways in which we can make interventions ourselves. All of us have a role to play.

We need to make a push at the local level to get our narrative out there. Organising speaking tours of local workplaces, community spaces and events by striking workers is a great way to both raise strike funds and build public support. Mass leafletting about current local disputes can also be effective where there is capacity. All these activities could be deployed during strike days, making the most of that time freed up from wage labour.

We also need to keep our actions creative, such as parents getting their kids to take part in an action with them or on their behalf, so the public keep seeing workers as normal people and identifying with them, rather than falling for the caricatures of striking workers in the right wing press. And we need to keep building outwards so we can have coalitions of other organisations standing up with us - showing over and over again that the government are the ones who are out of touch. We should aim to have parents and administrators standing up with teachers, patients and advocates standing up with nurses. We should also aim to have artists and singers speaking out and strengthening the political and cultural impact of the disputes.

Moreover, we can combine this with our direct actions - taking the fight to the extravagant homes of the bosses and the politicians to highlight a tale of two cities, to show that the reason our enemies don’t care about normal people is because they live lifestyles far different from them. We can make the bosses look so toxic and so out of touch that no-one wants to side with them.


The current strike wave is a huge opportunity for workers in this country to improve working conditions. But it is also more than that. Workers can use these strikes to begin to demand further changes, to delegitimize the bosses, to develop the leadership of new activists, to build alliances, and to increase the organising and campaigning infrastructure within our organisations. This will lay the ground for future advances that may reach much further.

To achieve this will likely require upping the intensity of our strikes, organising creative and escalating direct action, bringing more unions into the fight, coordinating between unions, and building broad public support. And that will require hard work, courage and organisation. With all of this we can win.

We are interested in hearing from other striking workers and organisers on how the current strike wave is evolving, and new directions that workers could take - if you would like to respond to this piece or write up your own perspective please get in touch at [email protected].

  1. The law states that if a union ballots workers working for an employer and calls strike action, then workers who are not members of a union who also work for that employer can also take part and receive the same legal protections as union members. However, if workers are members of another union, then they would need to be balloted by their union for action to receive the same legal protections. This would mean that NASUWT members would not be protected for taking action as part of a NEU strike. However, because employers generally have very little clue who is in one union (unless your union uses a check off system for collecting subs), there is usually very low risk of this being a problem. In addition to that, workers can join the union that has balloted at any point up to strike action and get the full protection if they want to, even if they only join temporarily. 


Charlie Macnamara (@c_macnamara)

is a staff organiser at a trade union.