Is strike action about to spread to the whole public sector? Doctors and firefighters could be next

Teaching unions are now warning they could follow rail workers by striking after barristers voted for four weeks of walkouts. Credit: PA

The UK endured the biggest rail strikes since 1989 last week, and there are serious concerns the railway walkouts could spread to the whole public sector as workers demand better pay amid soaring inflation.

Britain hasn't seen a general strike - where all or almost sectors strike collectively - since 1926, but there is a spiralling cost-of-living crisis and workers across the UK are struggling to make ends meet on their stagnant wages.

Prices are rising at a rate not experienced in 40 years - the last time inflation hit the current rate of 9% was in 1982.

Just three year's before that was the infamous 'Winter of Discontent' in 1978/1979 where the UK experienced widespread strikes in protest at the Labour government's imposition of pay caps.

Rubbish piled up in the streets as refuse collectors walked out and there were even reports of dead bodies remaining unburied due to a gravedigger strike.

There are now fears a "Summer of Discontent" will play out over the coming months, with doctors and firefighters the latest groups of workers considering strike action.

  • Doctors

There are concerns doctors could be among those going on strike this summer, over a real-terms pay cut of 30% since 2008.

Members at the British Medical Association’s (BMA) annual conference said on Monday that doctors’ pay has fallen against RPI since 2008 to the tune of up to 30%, which represents “career earnings loss amounting to millions of pounds” to each doctor.

One medic warned “it’s likely that industrial action will be required to move governments on this issue”.Doctors at the conference demanded the BMA restore their pay back to its 2008 value within the next five years.

“Pay restoration is the right, just and moral thing to do, but it is a significant demand and it won’t be easy to win,” said Dr Emma Runswick.

“Every part of the BMA needs to plan for how to achieve this.

“But I’m not foolish, I know that it’s likely that industrial action will be required to move the governments on this issue.”

She added: “It is outrageous that our pay has been cut by 30%.

“It is outrageous that doctors today are unable to afford mortgages and are delaying starting families due to falling pay.

“It is outrageous that our pay has been cut and it is sensible that we demand it back.”

This summer could see doctors go on strike over pay. Credit: PA
  • Firefighters

A firefighters’ union leader is also warning of strikes after an "insulting" 2% pay offer.

The executive of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is recommending rejection of the offer, which it said is well below the soaring rate of inflation.

Between 2009 and 2021, firefighters’ real pay has been cut by 12%, or nearly £4,000, the FBU said.

“This is utterly inadequate and would deliver a further cut in real wages to firefighters in all roles in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis," Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary said.

“It is galling to be insulted in this way, especially after our contribution to public safety during the pandemic.

“Firefighters will now inevitably begin to discuss reactions, including industrial action.

Rubbish piled up in Leicester Square amid strikes in the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79. Credit: PA
  • Railway workers

Around 80% of Britain's railways closed last week as Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) at Network Rail (NR) and 13 train operators went on strike for three days.

Like other unions considering strikes, they want their wages to grow at a rate closer to that of inflation.

The RMT said it has been unable to secure a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies and there had been no acceptable pay proposals from employers.

General Secretary Mick Lynch suggested strikes could be regularly repeated for months until a settlement is reached.

He is blaming the government for "unacceptable" pay offers because it funds Network Rail and rail operators and signs off on wage increases.

But Boris Johnson urged commuters to "stay the course", suggesting to his ministers at Cabinet that Britons must endure those strikes and perhaps more in order to beat the union and reform the railways.

  • Teachers

Two key teaching unions are considering balloting members over strike action if a significant pay increase is not offered.

The National Education Union (NEU) has written to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, telling him he must show school staff they are valued by providing "undifferentiated inflation-plus pay rises for all teachers."

If a sufficient offer is not provided by the autumn term, the union says it will ballot its members on "their willingness to take industrial action".

"We will strongly be encouraging them to vote yes," the union said, "we can no longer stand by while you run education and educators into the ground."

The latest figures put UK inflation at a 40-year high of 9.1%, suggesting the union would want a pay rise above that rate.

Teaching union NASUWT has also called for a 12% pay increase for teachers this year, and said it will ballot members in England, Wales and Scotland for industrial action if its demands are not met.

It is understood ballots on teachers would not be called until Mr Zahawi responds to the conclusions of the School Teachers’ Review Body report, expected to be released at the end of the school year.

A pay award for 2022/23 is due in November.

  • NHS staff

Unison, which represents workers across the NHS, warned staff would leave if they did not receive a fair pay increase, as its general secretary suggested there could be walkouts.

NHS nurses backed strikes in a vote in December 2021 but failed to secure the 50% turnout required before industrial action can take place.

Rising inflation and restraint on public sector pay has sparked fears that another ballot could be more successful, leading to a walkout among NHS staff.

Christina McAnea, Unison general secretary, said: “The government has a simple choice, either it makes a sensible pay award, investing in staff and services and reducing delays for patients, or it risks a potential dispute, growing workforce shortages and increased suffering for the sick.”

Chairman of the NHS Confederation Victor Adebowale warned a real-terms pay rise for the lowest paid NHS staff was needed to avoid “a worsening of the NHS workforce crisis."

Separately, a group of health staff working in the NHS but employed by a private company have voted to strike in a dispute over pay and holidays.

Unison said its members working for OCS at Lancashire & South Cumbria NHS Trust, including porters, caterers and cleaners, had overwhelmingly backed action.

The 50 staff work for the healthcare facilities firm at eight NHS sites across Lancashire. They are asking for the same sick pay and annual holiday as staff directly employed by the NHS.

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  • Barristers

Barristers unhappy about legal aid funding voted to strike this week.

On picket lines on Monday, hundreds accused the government of ignoring concerns about the criminal justice system and were angry about a proposed pay rise that could take years to kick in.

Any disruption to criminal court cases is likely to have a knock-on effect on the current case backlog.

Latest figures from HM Courts and Tribunals Service show there were 358,076 outstanding cases at magistrates’ courts, and 58,271 outstanding cases at crown courts, as of April 2022.

The strike action is intended to last for four weeks, beginning with the walkouts on Monday June 27 and Tuesday June 28, increasing by one day each week until a five-day strike from Monday July 18 to Friday July 22.

It means that cases at which barristers are required are likely to have to be postponed, including crown court trials.

Barristers are expected to stage picket lines outside court, including at the Old Bailey in London and at crown courts in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester.

  • Police

Police Scotland are withdrawing "all goodwill" from 5pm on 1 July after the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) turned down a "derisory" flat £565 annual pay increase. Described as the the "most overt demonstration of action" in more than 100 years, the action will see officers refusing to work unpaid overtime, not turning up early for pre-shift briefings and charging vital equipment on office hours rather than at home.

Police are not allowed to strike, but the withdrawal of goodwill is likely to have a significant impact on policing in Scotland.