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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Andrew Woodcock

Union leader urges troops not to ‘strike break’ ahead of airports walkout

Simon Calder

A union leader has urged troops not to “strike break” as industrial action hits airports, hospitals, ambulances and ferries over the Christmas period.

Mark Serwotka of the PCS union revealed he has written to the head of the armed forces Admiral Sir Tony Radakin warning it would be an “outrage” if government ministers sent the military in to do jobs like passport checks at the borders.

His call came as the general secretaries of the TUC and the Unison public sector union demanded a face to face meeting with chancellor Jeremy Hunt for “meaningful” talks on pay to avert industrial action.

In an open letter to Mr Hunt, Frances O’Grady and Christina McAnea called on the government to ditch their “smoke and mirrors” approach to talks, which they said had left public sector workers with “no choice” but to walk out over pay.

Ministers including health secretary Steve Barclay and Mark Harper, the transport secretary, have offered to play a “facilitating” role in discussions.

But the government has consistently insisted that negotiations are a matter for employers and unions, and that it is following the independent recommendations of pay review bodies in sectors like nursing.

And Rishi Sunak threatened “tough new laws” to prevent strikers disrupting everyday life. Aides refused to reveal his plans, but did not rule out measures to block emergency workers from striking or to require minimum service levels during disputes across the public sector.

Ms O’Grady and Ms McAnea today said ministers had “stonewalled” any meaningful discussions on pay.

“Good industrial relations require both parties to be willing to negotiate in good faith and to have open conversations,” they told Mr Hunt.

“When your cabinet colleagues have met unions they have repeatedly refused to talk about public sector pay. Ignoring the main issue on the table isn’t a negotiation.

“Ministers cannot continue to hide behind pay review bodies. The government sets their remit.

“If ministers genuinely want to resolve these disputes, they must address what’s causing them.”

Mr Serwotka reported similar experiences when trying to negotiate on behalf of officials in government departments and agencies including Border Force, National Highways and the DVLS.

“We keep being told the government has an open door, but there’s no point the door being open if there’s nothing behind that door,” he said.

“No money has been made available, no money has been put on the table, no assurances have been given to the hard-pressed people that we represent.”

Transport minister Baroness Vere said on Tuesday that Army personnel have already received training and will be deployed at ports and airports to keep services running during strikes.

But Mr Serwotka said: “Yesterday I wrote to Admiral Sir Tony Radakin to make it clear that we think it would be an outrage if the British armed forces – who surely have far better things to do – are essentially brought in to strike break for public sector workers on poverty pay.

“The idea that the military, in full military dress, will be there to meet people at passport checks at our airports is an affront not just to the people coming into this country but to the skilled workers.

“You cannot train someone to do that job in a matter of days, it’s quite a complex job.”

Ms O’Grady and Ms McAnea said that ministers’ refusal to countenance pay rises to keep pace with the 11 per cent rate of inflation was a “political choice”.

“You say there is no money to fund decent pay rises,” they told Mr Hunt. “But this boils down to political choices.

“It’s time to raise taxes on wealth – not workers.

“Now is the not time for smoke and mirrors. Now is the time for genuine negotiations.

"Meet with unions as soon as possible – so our public servants can get on with doing the jobs they love and services can start to improve for everyone who relies upon them.”

Separately, the RMT said a resolution in the long-running rail dispute is further away, after a last-minute intervention from the government in talks over pay, jobs and conditions.

It said it has heard from rail companies that there will be no revised offer from them after being "instructed" by the government instead to "take on" planned strikes.

The RMT said: "It is now absolutely clear that the Rail Delivery Group's attempts to resolve the dispute by making a revised and improved offer have been blocked by the government.”

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