Timetable of trouble: the wave of strikes set to hit the Tories this winter – The Guardian

Rampant inflation and government policy has brought matters to a head: so where is disruption going to hit and what are the unions asking for?
Strikes are not something most managers think about. The oft-mentioned “winter of discontent” and year-long miners’ strike were features of the late 1970s and mid-1980s. Since then, industrial action in the private and public sectors has fallen to a level so low that academics have given up studying it.
When pay talks began a year ago for the current financial year, inflation was rising, but the Bank of England was reasonably certain it would be temporary. Union leaders prepared for a post-pandemic battle over pay, but not one that would probably end in strike action.
The Ukraine war changed all that. By March, inflation had reached 7% from the previous October’s 4.2%. In July, the consumer price index had rocketed to 10.1% and has stayed around that level ever since.
Now it is possible that as many as 1.5 million workers could be on strike in December and January as an increasingly bitter confrontation between unions and management becomes entrenched, costing hundreds of millions of pounds in lost hours.
The public sector is in the frontline after a decade of low pay that has left workers thousands of pounds worse off once inflation is taken into account. Union leaders say it is the cumulative repression of public sector wages that has hardened attitudes among staff.
Ministers fear upsetting chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s carefully calibrated budget with special pleading while also acknowledging that workers are deadly serious about disrupting public services.
However, the prospect of the NHS grinding to a halt on 20 December under plans being discussed for a coordinated Christmas strike in England and Wales by nurses, ambulance workers and hospital staff will put Hunt under intense pressure to relax the purse strings.
The biggest day of industrial action in a generation would leave NHS bosses struggling to keep even the most basic services running, with many reduced to “Christmas Day” levels of staffing.
The health service has become a crucible after a series of reports made it clear that the working population is increasingly unhealthy and in many cases unable to work. Of the 600,000 people who have left the workforce, about 200,000 blame health reasons.
Hunt cannot expect to spur higher levels of growth in the economy without a thriving workforce, and that is not going to happen without huge investments in the health service to retain skilled staff and new equipment. Education is in a similar situation after the pandemic depressed levels of teaching time.
Hunt has funded a basic 2% pay rise – plus 1% for performance – across the public sector that few believe is tenable when inflation will remain near double digits for some time.
A teachers’ pay review board has recommended a rise of 5% to 8.9% for the lowest paid that will need to be funded out of existing budgets. No wonder headteachers are also balloting. They have their own pay grievance and cannot see how the sums add up when a pay rise means cuts elsewhere.
And Hunt’s problems do not end there. As we head towards pay negotiations for next April, private sector companies are expected to come under similar pressure from their staff, even where they are not unionised.
If these demands prove successful, the Bank has vowed to turn the maths into a zero-sum game, pushing interest rates higher to match rising wages. That will push up mortgage rates and kill the housing market. It is a tight spot with no easy answers for the chancellor.
Nurses are understood to have called for 17.6% in response to an average 4.5% pay offer. Health unions, including Unison and the GMB, are expected to coordinate strike action of hospital support staff and ambulance workers with the nurses, leading to “Christmas Day” levels of staffing on some days.
Since May, 40,000 rail workers have been striking in response to job cuts and a below-inflation pay offer of 2% plus 1% tied to job cuts – well short of the minimum 7% the union has demanded. The RMT union says it has yet to receive a revised offer in writing, forcing it to hold further action.
The largest civil service union, the Public and Commercial Services union, is planning a wave of strikes to support a 10% pay claim after successful ballots across much of Whitehall last month. The Prospect union, which also represents staff in government departments, is more circumspect about levels of support for industrial action and is holding consultative ballots.
In an attempt to end BT’s first national strike action in 35 years, the telecoms group awarded 71,000 staff on £50,000 or less a £1,500 pay rise in addition to a £1,500 pay rise in April. The impact of the two pay rises means that its 100,000 staff will be between 6% and 16% better off, with a typical employee receiving 9% more pay, according to the Communications Workers Union (CWU). An agreement is expected later this month, avoiding further industrial action.
Royal Mail’s union, the CWU, plans six days of strikes this month after 12 days this year, which the company estimates has cost each worker £2,000 on average in lost pay. The privatised business has offered 9% over 18 months, which the union says is more like 7% over two years.
Royal Mail made a large loss this year and is threatening to cut 10,000 jobs if a deal is not agreed.


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