Striking ambulance workers march to London's House of Commons to protest against the government's 5% limit for pay rises, January 1979. Over 100,000 ambulance workers took part in the nationwide strike.

Editor’s Note: Jane Holgate is professor of work and employment relations at the University of Leeds, UK. She is the author of “Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

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My first experience of being on strike was in 1975. As a teenager, I had a newspaper delivery round, and budding employees and I refused to deliver our papers until we had an agreement from the newsagent that he would increase our pay. Strikes were a common occurrence in the UK at the time and we — as teenagers — learned from what was taking place around us.

Jane Holgate

From the early 1970s, successive governments had tried to restrict union power. But rising prices, fueled by inflation, had pushed workers to demand higher wages, resulting in a major strike wave throughout the decade — similar to what’s happening now.

From coal miners to teachers, train drivers, health care workers and even gravediggers, so widespread were Britain’s strikes straddling 1978 and 1979 that they were dubbed “The Winter of Discontent” — a national mood amplified by the coldest winter in over a decade.

In 1979, in the UK, an estimated 29 million working days were lost to strikes. By the early 2000s, these had dropped to an historic low of around 20,000.

Now, decades later, the UK is again in the grip of strikes. And it’s not the only country experiencing an upsurge in industrial action.

So far this year, I have taken part in 11 days of strike action. My union, the Universities and Colleges Union, has called strikes repeatedly since 2018 over pensions and has won an agreement to improve benefits to pre-April 2022 levels. And since 2020, we have also called for strikes regarding overtime pay, inequality, workload and increasingly casual, rather than permanent, positions.

Perhaps surprisingly, 66% of all working days in the UK lost to strike action in 2018 were mainly due to disputes involving university employees.

It’s not just academics joining the picket line. The 2022-2023 UK strike wave has seen unprecedented militancy from self-employed barristers (known as trial lawyers in the US), whose action brought the criminal justice system to a halt.

Junior doctors, who haven’t been considered particularly militant and don’t have a history of withdrawing their labor, voted by 98% to take strike action (with 77.5% of members voting). Similarly, teachers in England also voted by 90%, on a turnout of 53%, to take strike action.

And railway workers and postal workers have been involved in long-running disputes with their employers, bringing the public transport system to a standstill and halting the delivery of mail and parcels.

The UK is not alone. Workers in places like France, Germany and Israel are walking out and protesting, and, importantly, are having significant impact. But what are the factors influencing this behavior?

Clearly there are some commonalities, like the current cost of living crisis, which has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine leading to increased fuel and food prices. But the strikes are taking different forms in different countries.

While the strikes in France are ostensibly about President Emmanuel Macron’s intention to raise the pension age by two years to 64, that is perhaps the provocation that has finally awoken the sleeping giant. Other factors of discontent include poverty, job insecurity and, in more rural areas, the dearth of public services. And, in France, young workers are angry over pension reforms — an issue that tends not to excite their UK counterparts.

Police officers in riot gear stand guard as French workers on strike block the entry of a fuel depot near Valenciennes, March 13, 2023.

Despite trade union membership being low in France, workers and the wider public are responding to calls by union leaders to express their discontent with the government in street protests. In this sense, the strikes, while economic in nature, are being expressed politically.

This is also the case in Germany, where unions coordinated a 24-hour nationwide strike last week — the biggest since 1992 — across airports, ports, railways, buses and metro lines, in an attempt to force concessions from the government and public sector companies over wages.

Meanwhile in Israel, the national trade union federation, Histadrut, called an unprecedented public response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul reforms. Doctors, local authorities, students and universities, among others, withdrew their labor, grounding flights from Israel’s main airport, as well as shutting shops and banks.

While Europe’s industrial action was triggered by economic demands, Israel’s strikes were foremost about democracy. But the action itself — withdrawing labor — was the same.

To really make their governments sit up and take notice, people aren’t just protesting — they are bringing countries to their knees by removing a crucial workforce and involving the wider public. (And in Israel’s case, it seems it was only when labor became part of the strike that Netanyahu started to, at least temporarily, draw back from the plans.)

In decades past, this may have been done through political parties. But with a lack of faith in politicians and the political process in general, workers are directing their blame for squeezed living conditions toward government.

So, are strikes simply back in fashion?

Back in the 1970s, strikes were part of the working-class culture. We understood — even as children — that if you organized, you could secure concessions from employers. Importantly, strikes at that time generated positive results. Workers who struck often won, and occasionally won big, like workers at Ford who secured a 17% pay increase when the government had imposed a national 5% pay restraint.

In the boom period of the 1960s and early 1970s, workers’ living standards were increasing, and they were increasing because of successful union organizing either as a result of strikes, or because of the threat of strikes.

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    But they were “offensive” strikes in a period of economic growth (before stagflation hit in the latter part of the 1970s). Today’s strikes are not of that nature. Instead, faced with falling standards of living after a generation of stagnation, workers are taking strike action out of despair rather than hope.

    And, while industrial disputes by unions are with employers, the blame for falling living standards is clearly being directed at the failures of governments.