Unison warns of public-sector strikes unless pay deals match cost of living
The head of Britain’s largest trade union has warned of possible strikes this year if the government does not heed its call for inflation-related pay increases for NHS and local government staff.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison — which represents 1.3 million public sector workers — said Prime Minister Boris Johnson had “no idea” of the massive financial problems ordinary people face right now.
She urged Johnson to take £10bn from tax hikes this year to fund wage increases in line with inflation, which is expected to rise to 10 percent within months.
The intervention by McAnea, whose union is a donor to the opposition Labor party, comes amid mounting industrial unrest this summer, with three days of RMT strikes set to wreak havoc on the rail network by the end of this month.
The government is trying to limit impending wage settlements to just 2 percent — or 3 percent in some cases — while inflation is skyrocketing amid the global energy price shock.
Wage agreements for public sector workers are already lagging behind private sector ones, where employers offer large bonuses to retain scarce staff.
Official data shows that average aggregate wage growth in the private sector was 8.2 percent from January to March, compared to 1.6 percent in the public sector — one of the biggest gaps on record.
McAnea told the Financial Times that the rising cost of fuel bills and rising gas costs has left many public sector workers struggling. Without inflation-proof wage increases, many public service employees would quit to find better-paying jobs elsewhere, she warned.
“The Westminster government has completely forgotten who helped the country through the pandemic and its impact on public sector workers,” she said.
“Healthcare workers who had to hold the hands of dying patients because the families couldn’t get to them. † † in front of [the government] to say that you have to show wage moderation is completely inappropriate.”
Her plea came when Johnson insisted that the government stand firm in the face of higher wage demands, and warned that a “wage-price spiral” would lead to higher interest rates — driving up rents and mortgages and the cost of borrowing for business and the public. government would rise.
“When a country faces an inflationary problem, you can’t just pay more and spend more,” he said in a speech in Lancashire. “You have to find ways to address the root causes of inflation. If wages continue to chase price increases, we risk a wage price spiral.”
About 25,000 Unison members who work in schools are voting for strike action in Scotland this week. Meanwhile, Unison with the GMB and Unite unions have filed a joint filing with local government for a pay increase for 1.4 million council and school staff of £2,000 or to keep up with retail price index inflation – which is generally higher than the consumer price inflation target of the Bank of England.
Other unions representing public sector workers are also threatening labor union action over wages: the public and commercial services union prepares to vote on civil service membership, while the National Education Union moves towards a possible vote in the autumn.
McAnea said Boris Johnson’s government has been ignoring union leaders for years and had enacted the strictest union laws in Europe: “They just don’t talk to us,” she said.
She added that Unison took part in hundreds of disputes each year that did not lead to strikes, but did lead to higher wages for members.
“We don’t want our low-paid workers to go on strike, but if there’s no alternative, what else can people do?” she asked.
McAnea said Unison members were already paying a disproportionate amount of their income on fuel, housing and transportation costs. “They lead what my mother would call a word-of-mouth existence where at the end of the week or month there is no money left to save for anything.”