Public sector strike: in numbers

Yesterday's strike ended with a war of words between ministers and the unions. Here are some facts.

How important and how wide scale was yesterday's public sector strike? It is hard to tell from listening to politicians and the unions, who each spun a very different narrative about what the TUC claimed was the biggest show of industrial discontent in 30 years. David Cameron dismissed the action as a "damp squib", telling MPs that Britain was hardly disrupted at all, with key services like airports running smoothly. On the other side of it, the TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, hailed "huge turnouts". Here is a summary of the numbers.

General turnout

The unions claim that around 2 million people were on strike yesterday, but ministers dispute this, putting the number closer to 1.2 million.

Education

The biggest impact was undoubtedly on schools. Cameron erroneously claimed yesterday that 40 per cent of schools were open (which he was quickly called up on), but in fact, 68 per cent of UK state schools shut entirely, and 14 per cent partially closed. In England, 62 per cent were shut, while the figure in Scotland was as high at 99 per cent.

Health

There has been some serious disagreement flying around on turnout from staff in hospitals, ambulance services and NHS Direct in England. The Department of Health claimed that only 79,000 employees didn't turn up for work. This would constitute 14.5 per cent of the workforce, les than the 20 per cent turnout predicted by the NHS. However, unions accused them of "fiddling the figures", claiming that 400,000 NHS staff went on strike, a number that would have been higher had some staff not gone to work to ensure care for emergency patients.

What we are certain of, is that 6950 operations were cancelled (that's 23 per cent of a total of 30,000 non-urgent NHS operations). 54,000 appointments were cancelled. Ambulance services were affected in several areas of the country, particularly the south-east, with 42 per cent of the London Ambulance Service striking.

Civil service/local government

Some 146,000 civil servants took part in the strike, representing more than a quarter of the civil service. According to the BBC, 850,500 council workers were on strike across the UK. The Local Government Association said that 670,000 employees in England and Wales were not at work, equating to 32 per cent.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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