The Washington Post
Voices of U.K.’S historic strikes
Nurses, firefighters and others tell their stories
LONDON — Britain is in the midst of its largest wave of workers’ strikes in decades. The demonstrations have been notable for their size: On a single day last month, over half a million people joined a day of mass action. But the strikes are also remarkable for how they cut across society. They involve nurses, doctors, teachers, civil servants, university lecturers, firefighters, ambulance staff, bus drivers, postal workers, baggage handlers and more.
There have been so many work stoppages, across so many sectors, that the BBC has had to keep a calendar to help people keep track of who is striking when — and when to prepare for schools to close or buses to stop running or for travel through Heathrow Airport to be a nightmare.
What’s driving all the strikes? British workers are feeling the squeeze from double-digit inflation — far higher than in the United States or most countries that use the euro. They say their pay needs to keep up with the cost of living. The government says pay increases could push prices even higher.
The Washington Post spoke with people in several professions to get a sense of what their lives are like and what propelled them to protest.
Ada Ferenkeh-koroma, 49, is a rheumatology nurse. She volunteered as a dancer at the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics, taking part in a segment that honored Britain’s National Health Service. But while free health care is a point of national pride for Brits, she said: “The care I signed up to provide, I’m not able to provide.”
She agreed with the vast majority of nurses who say they are understaffed and said she clocks an extra two to three hours “just to finish up the day.”
She has started wearing extra layers at home to save on heating costs and has cut her daughter’s extracurricular activities, including piano lessons. She said they now walk to more places to save money that would have been spent on public transportation. Like other nurses, she hasn’t had a real-terms pay increase since 2010.
Elizabeth Tunnicliffe, 49, is the head of English at a school in an underprivileged area of east London. She has worked as a teacher for 21 years and is a single parent of two children.
“I always thought being the head of department, on my salary, I could easily raise my kids,” she said. “But living in London is just so expensive.” Since her last pay increase five years ago, she has had to take out loans to pay for everyday bills.
She said her school, too, has been under financial pressures, axing two departments over the past decade because of budget cuts. She suggested that some politicians don’t understand what it’s like to get by on an average teacher’s salary, which last year was $46,650.
“They are millionaires, and it’s completely wrong that they have no idea how it feels,” she said.
Maria Buck, 45, is a London firefighter who can’t afford to live in London. She commutes 115 miles each way and sometimes stays at friends’ flats in the capital to save on fuel.
“I want to live in the place that I serve, but that’s absolutely impossible,” she said. She said that she hasn’t had a real-terms pay increase in more than a decade, and that her fuel and food bills have risen by a third in the past year.
“There are now foods, like say, raspberries, where you have to say, ‘ No, that’s a luxury item. I can’t afford that,’ ” she said.
“I’m not there yet, but at Christmas, I was seriously thinking about food banks,” she added.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never told anyone that. But it’s getting ridiculous, and at the end of the month, there’s not that much [money] left.”
Sharron Ramirez, 49, is a clinical nurse specialist working in blood transfusion. She said there is a “real scarcity of nurses,” with some “retiring and exiting because of the physical and mental pressure” and others switching to the private sector. In England alone, there are more 47,000 front-line nursing vacancies.
“The turnover is high. They don’t stay long,” she said of the nurses she helps train. “Then you have to train someone else. It goes round and round. We lose many talented people.”
Ramirez said she feels under pressure both at work and at home. “It’s heartbreaking. I have to tell my kids not to turn the heating on. It’s tough because you have to choose between buying food and paying the bills, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Lukas Slothuus, 32, is a fellow at the London School of Economics. Like other academics, he’s striking over pay, pension cuts and the use of temporary contracts. His contract expires in a year and a half, and he’s worried about job security. He works “all the time, on evenings and weekends, because I’m constantly anxious about what happens next.”
Since he first joined the university in 2009, he has noticed “classsize increases, staff-pay decreases.” He said he teaches and is in direct contact with about 200 students. According to the University and College Union, pay has decreased by 25 percent in real terms since 2010.
To help with costs, Slothuus said, he has switched to store brands at the supermarket and cut out dinners with friends and visits to the pub. “Even the price of a pint of beer seems significant,” he said. “Every month when I get my salary, it can buy less.”
A civil servant
Ellie Clarke, 31, is a representative for the Public and Commercial Services Union, the largest union for civil servants. She also works as a civil servant in the Cabinet Office. An internal survey by her union found that 8 percent of its members use food banks and that 9 percent claim welfare benefits.
“People think civil servants wear bowler hats and pinstripe suits and are very overpaid, and that’s remotely not the truth at all,” she said. The median salary of civil servants is about $36,032.
At home, she has draft-proofed her apartment, blocked air vents and fitted aluminum foil behind the radiators. “I’ve turned into my mother,” she said, laughing, before adding that she’s “terrified of spending money” and that her bills have tripled in the past three years.
“We can’t do our jobs when hungry and tired and constantly worrying about how we’re going to make ends meet,” she said.
Katie Holloway, 29, is a London firefighter who hasn’t had a real-terms pay raise since she joined the brigade five years ago, but her bills have shot up.
“Households are paying  to 600 pounds [about $600 to $700] extra a month that they didn’t have in the first place,” she said. The Fire Brigade Union says that a “competent wholetime firefighter” earns about $38,625 and that real-term wages have dropped 12 percent since 2010.
Holloway said she loves her job and insisted that nobody wants to be striking. It’s a “very concerning time” to have “ambulance workers and emergency service staff striking — that’s not a safe place for the country to be in.”
But “we aren’t asking for luxurious,” she said. “We’re just asking for our staff not to go to food banks.”