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Is Britain headed for a summer of strikes?

As Britain prepares for its biggest railway strike in a generation, union leaders warned that union action will spread across the country without government support for wage increases.

The question is how broad such an action will be, when it will take place and how much impact it will have.

This week’s rail strikes, led by the RMT rail union, revolve around salaries and layoffs — disputes that reverberate in other industries as the government strives to keep public sector wages below inflation.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, has suggested that other unions could engage in concerted action as its members “engage” in a long standoff with employers in the rail sector.

The TSSA, which represents rail sector managers, and Aslef, the train drivers’ union, are organizing their own votes to take action against some train operators later in the summer.

A wider confrontation between the government and public sector workers is imminent. Ministers are preparing to announce below-inflation wage deals for millions of teachers, doctors, nurses and local government employees whose earnings in real terms are already lower than in 2010, the start of a decade of austerity policies.

With inflation moving into double digits, Boris Johnson’s appeal – made last October – for companies to raise wages to solve the labor shortage seems long ago.

Frances O'Grady
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, said workers are now ‘facing low wages, insecurity and real cuts in their pay package’ © Yui Mok/PA

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, said people from all walks of life supported the railway workers and could take similar measures if the government continued to “combat” unions for political ends.

Unions representing public sector workers have demanded rewards that would not only compensate them for the rising cost of living, but also regain ground they had lost over the past decade.

But despite the increasingly fierce rhetoric, some union officials are downplaying the talk of a “summer of discontent.” The RMT has long been one of the UK’s most radical unions, wielding more power than most due to its ability to bring the country to a standstill.

Others will want to carefully test sentiment among their members before attempting to remove the legal hurdles that make it difficult to launch strike action nationally.

“The decision to strike is never easy and the law makes taking action incredibly difficult. † † But if the government imposes sub-inflation settlements on public sector workers, they are likely to ask unions to hold formal strike votes,” said a spokesman for Unison, which has about 1.3 million members in public services.

It votes about 25,000 members who work in Scottish schools on possible measures.

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, said wages are quickly becoming a bigger problem than teacher workloads.

“We’re getting reports from people saying they can’t afford gas in their cars to drive to work,” he said, adding that the long-standing problems with recruiting and retaining teachers are exacerbating.

The NEU plans to conduct a “temperature check” early in the fall to gauge whether its members want to take action, before holding a vote on union action later in September or October.

Junior doctors – who last went on strike in 2016 to protest changes to their contracts – are also preparing for potential action if they reach the end of a four-year wage agreement.

The British Medical Association, which has called on the government to compensate them for real wage cuts since 2008, said it could hold a vote on industrial action in early 2023 if its demands are not met within six months.

The Royal College of Nursing, which represents nearly half a million health professionals, says a wage increase of 5 percentage points above inflation is needed to retain staff and attract new recruits to the profession. It is awaiting the recommendations of the NHS wage assessment body and the government’s response before making a decision on the course to take.

Criminal defense attorneys are stepping up their legal aid action and planning several days of strikes over the next four weeks.

More broadly, while the scale of national measures remains questionable, unions and employers alike say wage negotiations are becoming increasingly difficult, increasing the likelihood of strikes at the local level surfacing in individual workplaces in both the public and private sectors.

Hackney is one of the local authorities where strikes have broken out over a 1.75 percent wage offer instituted at the national level by the Local Government Association against three unions: Unison, the GMB and Unite.

O’Grady said workers’ anger is growing, not only because they were asked to give a punch as corporate profits soared, but also because they felt the government had “abandoned working families” and sought to extract political capital from a confrontation.

“I’ve been asked a number of times where we’re going to coordinate the actions, and I’m not ruling it out,” she said. “But the point is that workers are coordinating themselves, not out of a deliberate strategy, but because millions of workers are now faced with low pay, uncertainty and real cuts in their pay packages.”

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