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Unions criticise Government after strikes reach worst level in over 30 years
19 June 2023, 08:44
A wave of industrial action has been held over the past 12 months, with many disputes remaining unresolved.
Union leaders have attacked the Government’s role in industrial disputes ahead of the anniversary of the first strike by railway workers, which has led to an unprecedented wave of walkouts in the past year.
Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show there were 3.7 million working days lost in labour disputes in the UK in the 11 months to April, the highest number in an 11-month period in more than 30 years.
One union official said the Government is “completely to blame” for the wave of walkouts across the country virtually every week since a year ago.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) staged their first stoppage on June 21 last year in a dispute over pay, jobs and conditions.
That dispute, which remains unresolved, is seen as the start of a stream of high-profile strikes by workers ranging from barristers, teachers, nurses, junior doctors, university lecturers and civil servants, to cleaners and posties.
That figure will increase with strikes continuing on the railways, NHS, education and Civil Service, and the prospect of more action by nurses.
Peter Turnbull, professor of management and industrial relations at the University of Bristol Business School, said: “This first anniversary marks an important milestone in the UK’s contemporary industrial relations history.
“More than three-quarters of the days lost came from transport, storage, information and communications, but daily life has also been affected by strikes in our schools and universities, the NHS, and Civil Service.
“After the longest period of falling real wages since records began, pay has understandably dominated the headlines, but the causes of these ongoing disputes run much deeper after years of austerity, consequent work intensification and falling standards of service provision.
“All strikes are eventually ‘settled’, but workers will remain unsettled by this prolonged period of industrial action for years to come.”
The PA news agency has interviewed general secretaries of several unions that have taken action, and they are all critical of the Government as well as employers.
Pat Cullen, of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “In the last year we have seen levels of strike action that few people could have imagined, with next month marking a year since the RCN announced it would ballot its members.
“That ballot led to unprecedented action from nursing staff who are standing up for their patients – they will no longer tolerate the low pay that fails to attract and retain people in the profession and puts patients at risk.
“In the final days of our ballot for further action, new polling has shown public support for nurses striking is unwavering, with support actually rising since the eve of the first strike in December last year.
“Nurses are seeing that the public backs them, while the fact that public support has risen should urgently focus attention in Downing Street.”
Mark Serwotka, of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), said: “There is no doubt that the Government is completely to blame, fuelled by an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis in which workers have been squeezed like never before.
“Ministers have been appalling. They assumed there would not be the stomach for a fight, but they made a catastrophic mistake.
“The Government has now made concessions to Civil Service unions, but only after months of action, ranging from national strikes, to targeted action in departments or areas such as the Border Force.”
Mick Whelan, of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said a recent overwhelming vote by his members to continue taking industrial action for the next six months shows their determination to secure a decent pay rise.
Drivers have been “demonised” by the Government and some commentators are keen to highlight how much they are paid, but the point of the dispute is that many drivers have not had a pay rise for four years, he said, adding: “They asked us to run trains during the pandemic so that key workers could get to work and our reward was having no pay rise for years and threats to rip up terms and conditions.”
Mick Lynch, of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), said the rail strikes have continued for so long because the Government decided to “dig in” at the start of the dispute.
“They thought the strikes would be blown away in a few weeks, the public would turn against us and they told the train companies they would be indemnified against any losses during industrial action.
“The then transport secretary Grant Shapps was highly regarded at that stage. He said he was going to get thousands of agency workers to cover for those on strike and ban overtime – but it all backfired.”
Mr Lynch said it became clear that the employers were prevented from negotiating and had their hands tied by the Government.
“It is actually in their contracts. The Secretary of State is entirely responsible for industrial relations.
“We have spent hundreds of hours talking to the employers but we have never got to the point of having an acceptable deal, even when the cost to the economy of the dispute – said to be £5 billion – is more than it would have taken to get a settlement.”
Mr Lynch said RMT members are prepared to continue taking industrial action “for as long as it takes” and believes their action over the past year has been an inspiration to other workers who have become embroiled in disputes.
“My members get a lot of support from the public when they are on picket lines – and I’ve been stopped in the street by City gents congratulating me on our campaign.”
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said the wave of industrial action over the past year is unprecedented, and shows that workers have decided they do not want to accept continued real-terms pay cuts.
He believes the Government has “clearly been pulling the strings” of the rail dispute and thought the public would turn against striking unions, but there is no evidence of a public backlash.
Christina McAnea, of Unison, praised her NHS members whose biggest strike action in decades “won the hearts of the public”, which she said forced the Government to come to the table with more money – and the Environment Agency, Care Quality Commission and university staff who are still in dispute.
“There have been some brilliant moments on the picket lines,” she said. “Our members braved hours of freezing weather to stand up for what’s right – not only for themselves, but for their colleagues and for the future of our public services.”
Gary Smith, of the GMB, said: “For millions – NHS workers, carers, retail staff and so many more – this brutal cost-of-living crisis has become a permanent nightmare.
“Strikes are happening because working people have simply had enough of this relentless attack on their living standards.
“Bosses everywhere must start listening to the real problems being faced and deliver pay rises that stop their employees from continually getting poorer.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said over the past year the union has mobilised “like never before”, winning two national ballots.
“Thanks to our members’ steadfastness on picket lines we are on the verge of seeing our retirement benefits restored, in full.
“This will be the biggest pensions win in British trade union history.
“Our fight for improved pay and conditions continues, but, make no mistake about it, every employer now knows that this union can win national ballots, any time, any place and under any circumstances.”
A Government spokesperson said: “As the whole country deals with cost-of-living pressures, we must ensure settlements are fair, affordable for the taxpayer and reasonable, allowing us to bring down inflation which will benefit everyone.
“Industrial action should always be a last resort. The Government will continue to engage constructively with trade unions and is prepared to agree reasonable and affordable settlements if unions come to the table, as we have already done with both NHS unions and the RMT.”