The chaos of strikes could continue into 2023 if the government refuses to negotiate wage increases, the new leader of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has warned.
Talking with The independentPaul Nowak has said voters will “punish” the Conservatives in the next general election unless Rishi Sunak changes his stance on public sector pay and ongoing industrial action.
“It will absolutely be a problem [at the 2024 general election],” he said.
“I don’t think this is inevitable,” Nowak added. “There is something the government could do to stop the strikes continuing into the spring and summer of 2023 and beyond. And that’s sitting down and negotiating. Whether we see sustained industrial action depends on the government.”
Confident public support will remain strong if the strikes escalate next year, he added: ‘I think the government will pay the political price because I think the British public are quite clear where the blame lies.’
Mr Nowak, who is taking over from Frances O’Grady as TUC secretary general, has challenged the government to help end the ‘living standards nightmare’, saying British workers face a second decade of ‘lost pay’ since the global financial crisis.
New analysis from the TUC shows that UK workers have lost an average of £20,000 in real wages since 2008 due to pay not keeping pace with inflation. By 2025, the loss will amount to £24,000.
For some key public sector workers the squeeze on real earnings has been even worse, the organization said. Its latest report found nurses have lost £42,000 in real earnings since 2008.
Mr Nowak accused the government of ‘burying its head in the sand’ on low pay and ‘hiding’ behind independent pay review bodies when it comes to public sector pay negotiations.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay and other ministers said unions should now “look forward” to the pay review round in April 2023 rather than stepping up industrial action in the coming weeks.
But the TUC chief said: ‘The promise of more jams tomorrow – I don’t think anyone believes the government. Energy bills, supermarkets and shops, rents and mortgages are now on the rise and they need a real wage increase now.
Mr Nowak said Mr Sunak should know the value of pay negotiations given his talks with both the TUC and the Confederation of British Industry to work out the redundancy scheme during the Covid crisis. “He seems to have forgotten those lessons,” he said.
The union leader also warned that independent wage control bodies are in “serious danger of being discredited because the government is using them as a political shield”.
He suggested that the government should stop “feeding” its parameters for pay rises early in the process and be more honest about being empowered to ignore recommended increases.
The TUC also warned Sunak to drop plans for anti-strike legislation in 2023. “The proposals undermine that right and don’t make it a right at all. It is an attack on a fundamental British freedom,” he said.
Ministers have suggested that the government could try to legislate to prevent workers on the NHS and other “critical infrastructure” from taking industrial action.
Downing Street is thought to be keen on plans to expand its Transport Strikes Act – which aims to enforce a minimum level of service during strikes – to the NHS and other areas.
“It potentially places the government in violation of international law, when you take the cumulative impact of all these restrictions on the right to strike,” Nowak said. “We will fight these proposals politically and legally.”
Downing Street said on Wednesday that a “fair deal” to end widespread strike action this winter could not result in double-digit pay rises for public sector workers. A spokesperson No. 10 said such wage increases would “incorporate inflation”.
The spokesman gave no indication that the government believes an agreement to end the train strikes is about to be reached after the Daily mail he quoted a source as suggesting the rail union and industry bosses were “almost there”.
Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) organizing director Nadine Rae also gave no guidance on closing a deal, but said the government could help end the strike action if it allows employers to ” negotiate freely” with others.
Meanwhile, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Union of Public and Commercial Services (PCS) warned that “synchronized” strike action would “significantly escalate” from January.
Pointing to possible strikes by teachers, junior doctors and firefighters – all voting for industrial action next month – the union boss told Sky News: ‘I think it’s only a matter of time before all unions recognize that the government is the cause of these disputes… So either they negotiate, or I think we will see the action escalate.