Britain faces year of strike chaos if Sunak refuses to negotiate, says new TUC boss

·4-min read

Strike chaos could carry on throughout 2023 if the government refuses to negotiate over pay rises, the new leader of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has warned.

Speaking to The Independent, Paul Nowak said voters will “punish” the Conservatives at the next general election unless Rishi Sunak changes his stance on public sector pay and ongoing industrial action.

“It will absolutely be an issue [at the 2024 general election],” he said.

“I don’t think any of this is inevitable,” Mr Nowak added. “There is something the government could do to stop strikes carrying on into the spring and summer of 2023 and beyond. And that’s to sit down and negotiate. Whether we see prolonged industrial action is down to the government.”

Confident public support will remain strong if strikes escalate next year, he added: “I think the government will pay the political price because I think the British public are pretty clear where the blame lies.”

Mr Nowak, who is taking over from Frances O’Grady as TUC general secretary, 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 TUC analysis shows that UK workers have lost an average of £20,000 in real wages since 2008 as a result of pay not keeping up with inflation. By 2025, the loss will total £24,000.

For some key workers in the public sector the squeeze on real earnings has been even worse, the organisation said. Its latest report found that nurses have lost £42,000 in real earnings since 2008.

Mr Nowak accused the government of “burying their heads 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 have said the unions should now “look forward” to the pay review round in April 2023 rather than escalate industrial action in the weeks ahead.

But the TUC chief said: “The promise of more jam tomorrow – I don’t believe anyone believes the government. The energy bills, supermarkets and shops, rents and mortgages are up now and they need a real-terms pay increase now.”

Mr Nowak said Mr Sunak should know the value of negotiations over pay, given his talks with both the TUC and Confederation of British Industry to hammer out the furlough scheme during the Covid crisis. “He seems to have forgotten those lessons,” he said.

The union leader also warned that the independent pay review bodies were “in real danger of being discredited because the government is using them as a political shield”.

He suggested that the government should stop “feeding in” its own parameters for pay rises at the start of the process and be more honest about having the power to override recommended increases.

The TUC has also warned Mr Sunak to drop plans for anti-strike legislation in 2023. “The proposals undermine that right and make it no right at all. It’s an attack on a fundamental British liberty,” he said.

Ministers have suggested that the government could try to legislate to prevent workers in the NHS and other “critical infrastructure” from taking industrial action.

Downing Street is thought to be keen on plans to expand its transport strikes bill – which is aimed at enforcing a minimum level of service during strikes – to the NHS and other areas.

“It potentially puts the government in breach of international law, when you take the accumulative impact of all these restrictions on the right to strike,” said Mr Nowak. “We will be fighting those proposals politically and legally.”

Downing Street said on Wednesday that a “fair agreement” to end widespread strike action this winter could not involve double-digit pay rises for public sector workers. A No 10 spokesman claimed such salary increases would “embed inflation”.

The spokesman gave no indication as to whether the government believes a deal to end train strikes is close to being reached after the Daily Mail cited a source suggesting rail union and industry bosses are “nearly there”.

Nadine Rae, Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) organising director, also gave no indication a deal was close, but said the government could help end strike action if it allows employers to “freely negotiate” with others.

Meanwhile, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) warned that “synchronised” strike action would “significantly escalate” from January.

Pointing to possible strikes by teachers, junior doctors and firefighters – all balloting for industrial action next month – the union boss told Sky News: “I think it is only a matter of time before all the unions recognise the government is the cause of these disputes … So they either negotiate, or I believe we will see the action escalate.”