The growing sense that the UK is on course for a winter of discontent has been further underlined, after it was revealed 999 call handlers in Northern Ireland have joined an existing BT Group strike.
Train strikes have already ground much of the UK to a halt in October, while industrial action is also set to take place for Royal Mail workers, college lecturers and barristers.
It all comes as the UK experiences near-record levels of inflation, with the cost of living having risen by just under 10% year-on-year as of August 2022. At the same time, real-terms wages have fallen by a record amount.
The chance of a resolution to the situation for public sector workers appears slim after Liz Truss mounted a furious attack on what she described as the “anti-growth coalition” in her first speech as Prime Minister to Conservative Party Conference 2022. She appeared to include “militant unions” among the members of this so-called caucus.
So, why are emergency call handlers going on strike - and what does it mean for you? Here’s what you need to know.
Why is a 999 call handlers strike taking place?
As with most of the major worker disputes across the country at the moment, the 999 call handlers in Northern Ireland are going on strike over pay and conditions.
The 500 workers, who are employed by BT, are joining a larger BT Group walkout at its County Armagh base in the town of Portadown. Around 1,600 staff will be striking over three days.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents BT employees, is leading the industrial action over what they call a “dramatic real-terms pay cut” given RPI inflation has reached 11.7% this year.
BT awarded a flat-rate pay increase of £1,500 - effective from 1 April 2022 - which it said provided an average rise of 5% for most workers, and a boost of 8% for its lowest paid staff.
CWU Northern Ireland regional secretary Erin Massey said this increase came “without negotiations in a breach of our agreement”.
She added: “We have a collective bargaining agreement with the company that they have conveniently overlooked.
“The centre here in Co Armagh does the 999 calls and they are the first point of contact when emergency calls come in, and then we have to divert them to the relevant body, should it be the fire service, police, ambulance, coastguard, mountain rescue.
“I want the company to realise their worth, I want the company to start respecting their workers and realise that they are underpaying them. The engineers kept the country running during the pandemic, they kept the broadband services, the phone line, nobody can work without broadband, nobody can work without telephones.”
While 999 call staff had previously been exempted from the strike, what the CWU branded as “widespread outrage” at BT’s “refusal to negotiate with union representatives” led to the lifting of this exemption.
Ms Massey implied any blame for the increased risk to the general public as a result of this walkout ought to be shouldered by BT, as they had “left us with no choice”.
When will 999 call handlers strike happen?
The first strike is happening on Thursday (6 October). Further walkouts are scheduled to take place over the course of this month.
Planned dates include Monday 10 October, Thursday 20 October and Monday 24 October.
BT said it “will do whatever it takes to protect 999 services – redeploying our people to the most important priority is a normal part of BT Group operations”. This included bringing in “experienced” agency staff, it told Sky News.
Should BT be unable to fully cover striking staff, it could mean people seeking help from the emergency services will struggle to get their call answered promptly.