Nearly two million people are preparing to strike as an already embattled Liz Truss faces a new winter of discontent. Several moves for coordinated industrial action are expected to pass this week, including among essential public sector staff such as teachers, nurses and junior doctors – with the union for head teachers balloting its workers for industrial action for the first time in its 125-year history. Up to 1.9 million people are expected to refuse to work or be balloted for industrial action over the next few months as they demand further pay rises to cope with spiralling inflation, which the most recent estimates by the ONS place at 8.6 percent. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is set to meet in Brighton this week, with resolutions on how unions plan to protest a lack of pay for workers expected to emerge.
In particular, a motion calling for the TUC to coordinate industrial actions by the striking unions this winter is thought to be likely to pass on Wednesday. While this move may fall short of a “general strike”, it would call on the body to coordinate and make sure the walkouts from various unions are working together to maximise impact.
The TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady has insisted the government had “only itself to blame” for the approaching likely strike action, accusing it of “picking a fight with unions and working people.”
Asked if the country was getting close to a coordinated strike, Unite leader Sharon Graham told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “Yes. I said yesterday I think we are getting close to one million people going on strike.”
The National Education Union (NEU) is currently balloting its 250,000 members as it points to teachers receiving a “below-inflation pay increase for teachers in England and Wales” of 5 percent. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing is understood to be balloting 300,000 nurses over their pay offer from the government, and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) will balloting around 160,000 civil servants for “strike action over pay, pensions, jobs and redundancy terms”.
The British Medical Association (BMA) is understood to be asking 50,000 junior doctors for their appetite to take action, while the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT)’s 45,000 members are being balloted in a historic move by its general secretary Paul Whiteman.
Mr Whiteman said at a conference today that after travelling the country and speaking to members, he had “never heard more anger and despair”. The total number of those projected to strike, including CWU members and other workers, comes to between 1.7 and 1.9 million according to senior union sources.
This means that of the 29.7million people employed in the UK, according to the ONS, one in 16 of them could be on strike within the next few months. RMT boss Mick Lynch has said rail worker strikes could go on “indefinitely”.
Last week new health secretary Thérèse Coffey said nursing staff could leave “if they want to”, standing her ground on the pay offer. She added to Sky News: “We’ve honoured the independent pay review body’s recommendations on this. That was higher than many of the other pay rises that other public-sector workers are getting.”
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Tory MP Greg Smith appeared to go a step further last Saturday, claiming that unions may actually be making things worse for their members.
He claimed: “Unions need to understand that by contributing to economic decline they are doing their members’ job security no favours at all.”
General secretary of the GMB union Gary Smith disagreed however, saying his workers were “taking on bosses and winning”, pointing to the “trashing of the economy by the Tories” which has led to “millions of working people…struggling to get by.”
In an interview with the BBC Ms Truss apologised for the economic damage caused by her and former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget, saying: “I do want to accept responsibility and say sorry, for the mistakes that have been made. I wanted to act but to help people with their energy bills to deal with the issue of high taxes, but we went too far and too fast.” She added that new chancellor Jeremy Hunt has been installed “with a new strategy to restore economic stability”.
Pressed on the claim that government policy has made things actively worse for families as the repayments on mortgages have risen, the PM repeated her apology and admitted “we went too far and too fast”.
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She added however: “The reason I did that was to make sure that we were dealing with the immediate issue of the energy crisis. And we did help people with their energy bills.”
The scale of the potential strikes from public sector workers are approaching that of the period starting in the winter of 1978 named the “Winter of Discontent”, during which around 4.6 million workers went on strike. Train drivers, nurses and grave-diggers were among those to stop work and stand on the picket line in demonstration at the government’s refusal to provide pay rises during a period of rampant inflation.
Ms O’Grady added: “Nobody takes strike action lightly. But UK workers are suffering the longest squeeze on their living standards in more than 200 years. Many of those being balloted for action this autumn and winter are key workers who got us through the pandemic. After more than a decade of having their wages held down, the very least they deserve is a decent pay rise.”
A government spokesperson said it recognised the pressures people were facing with the rising cost of living, while urging parties involved in strike talks to settle disputes.
They added: “The government will do whatever it can to keep our economy moving and minimise disruption so that the public can get on with their daily lives.”