If the UK Government keeps refusing to talk about pay, the blame for the ongoing strikes will lie fairly and squarely at its door
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As people return to work after the festive break, more walk-outs are planned and ministers show little sign of softening their intransigent stance. Rail strikes resume this week as Network Rail staff across the UK stage repeated stoppages. Even in Scotland, junior doctors are preparing for industrial action and unions representing nurses and midwives have rejected the government's latest pay deal and are due to announce strike dates next month. Firefighters could be next.
With inflation at around 10 per cent and pay offers for some sectors as low as two per cent, it's hardly surprising that workers are feeling angry and desperate at their real-terms pay cuts. A growing number of nurses are said to be resorting to foodbanks to feed their families – a shameful situation for any society, but especially a rich nation like ours.
There was a time, at the height of Covid, when it looked as if there might be a fundamental rethink about how we value different jobs and an attempt to ensure proper recognition and reward for the vital role played by often low-paid workers. There was a genuine gratitude for the sacrifices made not just by health workers, but also others who kept society functioning – like delivery drivers, supermarket staff, teachers and bus and train drivers. These are the people who saved lives, maintained food supplies, made sure some basic level of education continued and helped essential workers get to their jobs.
But all that seems to have been forgotten now. Public service staff are told their pay claims are unaffordable and ministers accuse them of holding the country to ransom. The government tries to portray its position as reasonable because it is following the recommendations of “independent” pay review bodies. It ignores the fact the recommendations were produced before the surge in inflation and the review bodies are only independent within government-set parameters.
And ministers condemning the impact of walk-outs by nurses and paramedics is also tricky when people know hospital wards are understaffed all the time and ambulance response times are poor because so many are queuing outside A&E departments for hours.
No-one likes the idea of nurses striking – least of all the nurses themselves – and everyone gets frustrated by the disruption which industrial action in key sectors inevitably brings. But with shared worries about the impact of the soaring cost of living and wages not keeping up with inflation, many of the public are on the workers' side rather than the government's in these disputes. One poll just before Christmas showed support for nurses had risen by seven points since the strikes were announced, with 54 per cent blaming the government for the nurses taking action.
Disputes almost always end with negotiation and compromise. If the government maintains its refusal to have talks about pay, the blame for the continuing strikes and the consequent disruption will lie fairly and squarely at the government's door.