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Boris Johnson warned against ‘race to bottom on pay’ as rail strikes hit millions of travellers

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Unions today accused Boris Johnson of pursuing a “race to the bottom” on pay, as the prime minister set the scene for months of confrontation with striking workers.

As millions of train passengers faced disruption from the largest rail strike since the 1980s, Mr Johnson said the country must be ready to “stay the course” to head off public sector pay hikes which would plunge the UK into an inflationary spiral.

But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady told The Independent that the government’s approach will cause “widespread hardship” among working families and damage the economy by suppressing consumer demand.

With fewer than 20 of scheduled trains running on Tuesday – and 26 per cent of those which did run subject to delays – RMT boss Mick Lynch hailed a “fantastic” response from rail workers.

“RMT members are leading the way for all workers in this country who are sick and tired of having their pay and conditions slashed by a mixture of big business profits and government policy,” said Mr Lynch. “Now is the time to stand up and fight for every single railway worker in this dispute that we will win.”

But a Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson responded: “Unions have shut down big parts of the rail network, hitting local businesses and unfairly cutting people off from hospitals, schools and work.

“However, early data shows that unlike in the past many people now have the opportunity to work from home, so we haven’t even a rush to the roads, as traffic has instead gone online, which means the unions aren’t having the overall impact they might have hoped.”

Official figures released on Wednesday are expected to see inflation dialled up a notch from the 9 per cent recorded in April, fuelling further demands for higher pay from workers struggling to pay household bills.

The National Education Union (NEU) will write to Nadhim Zahawi after seeing the figures to demand an “inflation-plus” rise for teachers, with the warning of a possible ballot on industrial action in the autumn.

General secretary Kevin Courtney said the union will urge the education secretary to “re-evaluate” his earlier proposal of a 3 per cent hike in the light of fast-rising inflation, which is forecast to reach at least 11 per cent in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) announced it will ballot 115,000 Royal Mail staff over a “totally inadequate” 2 per cent pay award, while sectors ranging from health workers to barristers and civil servants mull industrial action.

Tellingly, a threatened strike by refuse collectors working for Veolia was averted only by the offer of a 7.5 per cent rise – below inflation but well above the 2-3 per cent being offered to rail workers and in line with the 7 per cent demanded by the RMT.

The outcome of the rail dispute will set a precedent for a range of public sector professions as recommendations from pay review bodies are received by ministers over the coming weeks.

Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) director Paul Johnson said that a settlement of 7 or even 9 per cent for any particular group of workers would not be inflationary in itself, but if it became the norm it risked being passed on in prices.

Junior doctors have already indicated their willingness to consider strike action, and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) today warned that pay was “a crucial factor” in the recruitment and retention crisis which has seen more than 80 per cent of shifts facing staff shortages.

“Following the UK government’s pay award announcement, RCN members will have a chance to speak up for their profession, and their patients,” a spokesperson told The Independent.

While Mr Johnson accused “union barons” of causing “all sorts of unnecessary aggravations” to people trying to get to work and schoolchildren sitting exams, there were signs that the country is split over the strikes.

Some 58 per cent of those questioned by pollsters Savanta ComRes after being given a description of the issues behind the dispute said the rail strikes were “justified”, against 34 per cent who said they were not.

A separate poll by YouGov found that 37 per cent were “supportive” of the strikes – which are due to be repeated on Thursday and Saturday, causing disruption throughout the week – and 45 per cent “opposed”.

Opinions were divided over who was to blame for the walkout, but voters appeared to reject the government’s argument that it could not get involved in negotiations between rail employers and unions.

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of those questioned by Savanta said the government had not done enough to prevent strikes, with 61 per cent saying the same about transport secretary Grant Shapps, 57 per cent about Network Rail and 49 per cent the RMT.

Talks between unions and employers are due to resume on Wednesday after a 24-hour break for the first day of the strike.

Downing Street accused unions of resisting reforms to “outdated practices”, such as restrictions on the use of technology or resistance to using apps which could boost productivity.

In a clear indication that he is ready to see the dispute rumble on rather than give ground, Mr Johnson told a meeting of his cabinet: “We need, I’m afraid, everybody – and I say this to the country as a whole – we need to get ready to stay the course.

“To stay the course, because these reforms, these improvements in the way we run our railways, are in the interests of the travelling public, they will help to cut costs for farepayers up and down the country.”

Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson warned that generous rises in the public sector would become “embedded in the labour market”, sending a signal to private companies to make similar offers and triggering an inflationary spiral which would hit the real value of everyone’s pay packet.

The same consideration did not apply to state pension rises, expected to match inflation in line with the “triple lock” protection, he said.

“The prime minister’s view is it is in the long-term interest of both the country and the public to not give in to some of these demands,” said the spokesperson.

But Ms O’Grady said: “Britain is in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis in generations.

“The last thing working families need right now is a race to the bottom on pay.

“Holding down wages in the public sector – to keep pay awards lower in the private sector – will cause widespread hardship. And it will suck demand out of our economy by depressing consumer spending.

“It’s also jarring to hear the prime minister call for nurses, teachers and other public sector key workers to tighten the belts when he’s looking to tear up the limits on City bosses’ pay.”

Mr Courtney said Mr Zahawi must revise teachers’ offer upwards in the light of fast-increasing prices.

“When he wrote to our pay review body to give evidence, he said that experienced teachers should get a 3 per cent pay rise,” the NEU boss told The Independent.

“Inflation has gone up dramatically since then. We’re saying that he must re-evaluate.

“There’s a profound crisis developing in teacher recruitment and retention. He cannot turn away from the impact that double-digit inflation will have on making that worse unless there is a proper pay offer.”

Mr Courtney said that, with pay still below its 2010 level when inflation is taken into account, the government was making a “big mistake” in demanding restraint from working people.

And Unison general secretary Christina McAnea told The Independent: “Health workers in England are still waiting for the government to announce the pay rise they were due almost three months ago.

“Any increase must be above inflation. This wouldn’t solve every problem in the NHS but should prove enough to stop many experienced staff from leaving.”

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