Strikes could continue into summer and become more co-ordinated, as unions urge government to negotiate

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The new TUC general secretary has described Rishi Sunak as ‘the biggest barrier’ in resolving the various public sector pay disputes

The solution to public sector strike action “lies in the hands of the government,” a union leader has said, amid warnings that strikes could continue long into next year with greater coordination between unions.

The new Trade Union Congress (TUC) general secretary, Paul Novak, accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of being “the biggest barrier” to resolving the strikes, and blasted the independent pay review bodies which have offered pay rises that “run at half the rate of inflation”.

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The head of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which currently has a mandate for industrial action across 124 government departments and public sector bodies, predicted that strikes will become more “co-ordinated and synchronised and escalating”.

Novak also warned that new groups of workers could be set to take up strike action, following an announcement from the BMA that it will ballot junior doctors in the new year.

Sunak is ‘biggest barrier’ to ending strikes

Paul Novak is the new head of the TUC, which represents 5.5 million workers across 48 trade unions, replacing Frances O’Grady. Speaking to the Mirror, he has warned that strikes could continue into next year if the government does not negotiate improved pay deals.

Novak, who was involved in negotiations with Rishi Sunak over Covid support schemes, described the Prime Minister as “the biggest barrier” to resolving the strikes, because of his “cheap union-bashing”. He also accused Sunak of “forgetting the lessons” of the pandemic.

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“The solution lies in the hands of the government,” he said. “We could certainly see new groups of workers taking strike action. But not a single one of our members in the public services wants to be stood on a picket line… What they want is for the government to listen.”

The government has continually said it will not intervene on public sector pay offers, as these are set by independent pay review bodies, which make recommendations to the government. However, trade union figures have pointed out that these bodies are given a mandate by government.

Workers are questioning the independence” of the independent pay review process, Novak said. “When you’ve got over a quarter of hospitals with food banks for their own staff, that’s got to say something’s broken,” he explained. “When it delivers pay rises that run at half the rate of inflation, that doesn’t feel like a fair or independent process to our members.”

Dissatisfaction with the pay review process could see public sector strikes continue long into next year, Novak said, as he warned that workers would be prepared to fight against the upcoming 2023 pay offer, due in spring, alongside a continued dispute over the 2022 offer.

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“The trade dispute you could potentially see could be about last year’s pay round, and the coming year’s pay round. I think everybody wants to avoid that situation. It’s not because union leaders are prepared to do it. It’s because our members are telling us they’ve got no alternative. They can’t afford another year of real-terms pay cuts.”

The new TUC general secretary said he believes the government is being “disingenuous” by blaming NHS workers for the impacts of strike action. “Millions of people are being placed at risk every single week in our NHS because of the chronic understaffing,” he said. Thousands of nurses took part in industrial action on 15 and 20 December, with ambulance staff also staging their biggest strike in 30 years on 21 December.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay is now poised to offer an expedited pay deal, the Daily Telegraph reported. This comes after unions and ministers remained in stalemate over pay negotiations on Wednesday night (21 December). Ambulance workers in the GMB union called off a planned strike which was due to take place yesterday, following “amazing” public support for industrial action last week.

Strikes could become ‘more coordrinated’

Civil servants are gearing up for a long campaign of industrial action over pay, jobs and pensions, which could see different government departments targeted for strike action at their busiest periods over the next few months to maximise their impact. PCS balloted thousands of workers and won a mandate for strike action in 124 departments and public sector bodies, including a number of key government departments, Border Force, the DVSA and more.

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But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, has predicted that unions could start to coordinate their strike actions to maximise impact, in what some have suggested would be akin to a general strike.

He told Sky News: “I think it is only a matter of time before all of the unions recognise that the government is the cause of these disputes so we will work closer together and I think we will see action that is co-ordinated and synchronised and escalating. If we go into 2023 with millions of people suffering in-work poverty, including the government’s own staff, something has to be done.”

This comes as driving examiners launched a five-day strike on Wednesday (28 December) as part of escalating industrial action by civil servants in a dispute over pay, jobs and pensions. PCS members in 71 test centres in eastern England and the Midlands will walk out. The strikes come after workers were offered a pay rise of 2%, with Serwotka calling on the government to “put some money on the table” to resolve the dispute

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