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Open the door and let the unions in

Rail strikes have been big news in 2022 (Image: iNews)

If there's anything we can take from 2022, it's that people around the world have had enough. This feeling had been brewing for a good couple of years, but the global pandemic put emotions to one side while the majority followed 'the establishment'. 

Now government restrictions are history in the UK, Britons have spent recent months reflecting on Covid-19 and their lives more generally. For example, many, myself included, were part of the 'Great Resignation' crew, by changing jobs and houses. And the total reopening of the economy would have meant businesses were able to breathe a sigh of relief; though we quickly learned there was little chance of that with (over the course of the year) growth forecasts downgraded, trade deals with powerful nations like the United States stalling, mounting debt, rising interest rates and inflation, markets going doolally over radical announcements - the list goes on.

As we enter 2023, the UK government's priority is to try and control the volatile economic situation, as well as grapple with the cost of living crisis. I mean, this has been pledged for a number of months, yet there are very few signs of hope or recovery. The pressure to see this hope and recovery quickly is reaching boiling point. In addition to all the doom and gloom mentioned earlier, wages are stagnating, food prices have gone up along with bills, rent, council tax, petrol, diesel and well, everything else. 

Sometimes, I feel generous enough to give the government a benefit of a doubt because I realise there's a fine balance between making sure there's enough in its departments' pockets to invest in improving communities and businesses, and making sure there's enough in people's pockets to live and thrive. Of course, it's achieved through minimal political drama, by listening to each other and taking some proactive risks. None of this is being done at the moment, and it's come to little surprise, therefore, that unions are taking matters into their own hands.

It's been hard to escape the news of union members taking strike action since last summer. It started with rail workers on 21st June 2022, and then postal workers, driving examiners, bus drivers and nurses followed suit. Many of the unions representing them have already planned walkouts after the New Year, and show no signs of slowing down. They've had enough of receiving salaries which don't reflect their hard work and aren't in line with inflation. They're also sick of deteriorating working conditions and general depreciation of their once proud sectors. 

The political reactions to these have been combative for sure, with Conservative MPs using media platforms to express their frustration. The Health Secretary said that 'ambulance unions have taken a conscious choice to inflict harm on patients'. Meanwhile, ministers - including the Health Secretary - are stubbornly refusing to meet with union leaders to try and put an end to the disruptions. Instead, they seek to impose 'tough laws to deal with unreasonable union leaders'. What will frustrate them more is that the public still largely support the strikes, despite the lack of progress to come up with any resolve.

The government may feel that this will blow over and unions would eventually give up, but it's completely underestimating the persistence of these leaders. Union members are also fully behind the actions. On the other hand, the unions aren't seeking new ways of getting the government to see reason. We're in a Groundhog Day situation where union leaders, such as Mick Lynch from RMT (The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) and government declare a public war of words and that's about it.

People who know me well would appreciate that I don't believe that strikes and protests work, and if they do, they would in days, if not weeks. If nothing has changed after 2-3 months, it's time to go back to the drawing board, get strategic and come up with something which will get the right people to listen and act. The unions may think that stopping strike action is exactly what this government wants, and they'd be right in believing this. But, stopping strike action doesn't mean holding the government and major privately owned firms to account would end. In fact, the Conservative government needs to do so much more with unions, and not think that they're just ungrateful socialists backed by the Labour Party, holding the UK hostage.

Unions are fantastic assets for an increasingly complex workforce. They are the eyes and ears of those in the sectors they represent, and should be treated as such. They aren't a nuisance as we're led to believe. If they're demanding, say nurses, to receive a 19% pay rise, that should be taken seriously. They don't pluck numbers out of thin air. Certainly, their actions come to define, or perhaps overshadow, what they're set out to do, but isn't that a reflection of external attitudes towards them, or do the unions have themselves to blame? There isn't a right or wrong answer to that - perhaps, it's a bit of both. The solution, however, is to better utilise them.

The biggest challenge facing these industries is recruitment. We're seeing a toxic cocktail which has a mixture of not enough people being enticed to vital roles and systems that are unfit for modern times. The NHS, for example, is reportedly operating at 11% under required staffing levels. If you ask a three year old what they want to be when they grow up, they'd say train driver or doctor, sure - but fast forward 10-15 years, their passion for transport and nursing simmer, as focus turns to more digital antics, or something more practical that doesn't require as much training. If you could earn thousands playing a computer game, you wouldn't be blamed for pursuing that over working extremely long hours at a highly-pressured hospital to only receive pittance. 

The NHS, rail companies, Royal Mail and the like, need to be a step ahead of the game. Target young people and say that they're part of their exciting futures - and they absolutely do have exciting futures. They've so much to achieve, whether it's improving cancer treatment through the development of technologies yet to be explored, or making train services as efficient as we see in Switzerland and Japan, or finding ways of ensuring postal journeys can be as effective as an email or text message. It is all doable if you have future generations engaged and embrace the challenges ahead, and it's only achievable through making the sectors attractive, because they are. 

The constant bickering between government and unions - based on silly premonitions of political ideologies - is putting Britain on the brink of long-term disaster. Put politics to one side, by working together, it can address recruitment challenges and unions can play a bigger, more integral, role in both human resources and wider society. It may not bring 20% wage hikes overnight, but today's demands won't satisfy tomorrow's needs. Much more is at stake. Britain can't function properly without a thriving and accessible health service or a reliable and efficient rail service. Brexit has set the UK back a few steps, but this can be minimised if influential people join forces and show the country's true potential and competitive spirit, rather than look at other nations with envy.


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