Britain braces for biggest day of strikes since 2011 as ministers reject wage increases

Teachers, train drivers and civil servants are set to join the UK’s biggest day of strikes since 2011 on Wednesday as ministers continue to resist union calls for public sector wages to be increased.

Around 150,000 teachers are expected to be made redundant across England and Wales, affecting more than eight in ten schools. Commuters will also be stranded as 12,500 train drivers shut down some lines entirely and only allow a third of services to run over the network. Around 70,000 university lecturers will hold the latest in a series of strikes.

More than 100,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, will also go on strike. Their strike will affect Whitehall departments, regulators and other agencies, museums and employment offices — as well as border posts where military personnel have been drafted to check passports.

The Trades Union Congress, the voice of organized labor in the UK, declared Coordinated Action Day to protest new legislation that will allow ministers to order minimum service during strikes in key sectors such as transport, health and education.

There is no sign that ministers are looking to resolve the wage deadlock with unions preparing to step up industrial action unless wages are improved for 2022-23.

For 2022-23, teachers have been awarded a salary increase of at least 5 percent. But teachers’ unions want above-inflation increases that they say would “correct” years of real pay cuts.

Meanwhile, the government offered Border Force staff a 2 percent pay rise for 2022-23, but the PCS has requested a 10 percent increase.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said on Tuesday the government was “working with fellow unionists” to resolve the healthcare dispute.

“We recognize that the NHS has been under a lot of pressure from the pandemic,” he told the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, adding that ministers “wanted to have discussions. . . as part of this year’s Salary Review Board”.

But Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said the government was doing “exactly nothing” to end the standoff after MPs heard the health board had missed a deadline for submitting evidence to the Payroll Verification Body to share its recommendations for numbers 2023-24.

“Rishi Sunak wants the public to believe that the ministers are doing everything they can to resolve the dispute. You are not. There is no salary negotiation and the Prime Minister must stop deceiving the public,” she said.

Unison said on Tuesday that its members of five ambulance trusts in England would be holding a fourth strike on February 10 – adding to a week of strikes that are already said to be the largest in NHS history.

Four other unions are organizing actions by ambulance workers, nurses and physiotherapists, with healthcare leaders warning they risk causing “serious and profound” long-term harm.

Meanwhile, rail unions RMT and TSSA are considering bids from rail companies as the industry tries to end months of destructive strikes.

But Simon Weller, deputy general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef, said relations with rail operators had gone “backwards” as earlier this month they turned down an offer of an 8% pay rise over two years linked to major reforms.

“Train conductors had a pretty hard line before they saw the offer. That’s hardened now,” he said, adding that an 8 percent pay rise, even “with no strings attached,” wouldn’t settle the dispute.

Rail Delivery Group, which speaks for train operators, said the offer was “fair” and would bring the average driver’s salary to £65,000.

Downing Street warned the scale of Wednesday’s strike action would cause “significant disruption”, adding: “It will be very difficult for the public trying to go about their daily lives.”

Although the government wanted unions to reconsider their approach and continue talks, Cabinet Secretary Oliver Dowden undertook “significant planning work”, including contingency planning for firefighters’ strikes.

Downing Street added that 600 service members who went on strike over the Christmas period remained on standby for the next round of industrial action. Britain braces for biggest day of strikes since 2011 as ministers reject wage increases

Adam Bradshaw

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