Union leaders have told ministers to stop “hiding behind” pay review bodies in winter strike talks amid warnings that industrial action on the railways could continue for six months.
As a rolling wave of industrial action looms, Frances O’Grady, secretary general of the Trades Union Congress, and Christina McAnea, the general secretary of healthcare union Unison, accused the government of refusing to negotiate in good faith and told the chancellor: “Now is not the time for smoke and mirrors. Now is the time for genuine negotiations.”
The prime minister meanwhile accused union leaders of being “unreasonable” and threatened “new tough laws to protect people from this disruption”.
No 10 said the government had not ruled out plans to stop industrial action by nurses and ambulance staff.
It appeared unlikely any change would come in time to prevent this winter’s widening pay dispute which is threatening chaos in transport, health and the postal services around Christmas and beyond.
Speaking last night the prime minister did not dispute a suggestion the country was heading for gridlock and said he would “do whatever I need to do” to protect people’s safety and minimise disruption. He insisted the government was showing “reasonableness” with its pay offers, while trying to tackle inflation, which is still in double digits.
The intensifying rhetoric came as border guards manning airport passport control announced a new eight-day strike from 23 December to New Year’s Eve affecting Heathrow, which has been planning for its busiest Christmas since 2019. Gatwick and Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff airports, will also be hit.
It compounds walkouts planned by nurses, railway workers, Royal Mail staff, airport baggage handlers and civil servants in the coming weeks in protest at real terms wage cuts with consumer price inflation running at 11%.
Train drivers at 12 rail companies have also voted overwhelmingly to continue strike action in a long-running row over pay. Aslef said the turnouts were “huge”, showing how angry its members are.
Pay review bodies set wages for a wide range of public sector workers and ministers have repeatedly said they cannot interfere with their recommendations. However, the government sets their remit and O’Grady and McAnea said: “If ministers genuinely want to resolve these disputes, they must address what’s causing them.”
But Sunak told parliament on Wednesday: “The government has been reasonable. It’s accepted the recommendations of an independent pay review body, giving pay rises in many cases higher than the private sector. But if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public.”
In their letter to Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor of the exchequer, demanding “genuine negotiations” O’Grady and McAnea said that when cabinet ministers have met unions “they have repeatedly refused to talk about public sector pay” adding: “Ignoring the main issue on the table isn’t a negotiation.”
“No public sector workers want to take strike action this winter,” they said. “They are committed public servants who take great pride in their jobs and the communities they serve. But the government has left them with no choice.”
The Christmas walkout by airport border staff is set to have “significant impact” on travel over Christmas, said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka who warned ministers not to draft in the military as cover, saying there was not enough time to train them properly. Serwotka has met government ministers but said they were refusing to increase a 2% pay rise. He said his members had been “in tears” at having to cope with the cost-of-living crisis and predicted unions will coordinate actions.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said it intended to minimise any delays if strike action goes ahead, but warned: “passengers should be prepared for disruption”.
Meanwhile the RMT union, which is already planning railway strikes from Christmas Eve to 27 December told the Guardian it believes it has a mandate to continue walkouts well into 2023.
On Thursday discussions are expected between the government and ambulance unions about which 999 calls will still be prioritised if a planned 21 December strike by 10,000 ambulance workers goes ahead. Esther Rantzen, who founded the The Silver Line helpline for older people, said: “If ambulances decide that trips and falls are actually not serious enough for them to send a driver, I think it could result in loss of life. I think particularly older people may well die because of the strike.”
Steve Barclay, secretary of state for health and social care, said there was still a question over whether ambulances would cover “emergency responses to things like heart attacks and stroke” but unions indicated it was likely they would.
One strike was called off on Wednesday when Unite, the union representing 2,000 bus drivers in London, said its members had accepted an 11% pay rise which was a “significant improvement” on the 4% drivers were originally offered by Metroline, a private company.
The Royal College of Nursing, whose members are going on strike on 15 and 20 December in parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, also accused the government of playing “cheap and divisive political games” and urged ministers to focus on negotiations.
Pat Cullen, the union’s general secretary, said: “Hundreds of thousands of hard-working, decent people should not be cast aside as ‘unreasonable’ for expecting better for themselves, their families and their patients. The prime minister appears out of touch with the public if he is intent on attacking nursing staff like this.”
Labour cast doubt on the idea that the government would bring forward anti-strike laws in time to avert some of this winter’s industrial action.
A spokesperson for Keir Starmer said: “The government is not serious about avoiding these strikes. Barely a day goes by when we don’t pick up the newspaper and read that the government has briefed out a new policy that is going to get tough on this issue. It is not a serious government working in a serious way for the people of this country.”
The spokesperson could not give any concrete details on how Labour might handle the negotiations differently, however. They refused to call on the government to provide more money to departments, and would not say if the party would introduce any new legislation should they win the next election.