The head of Britain’s largest union has warned of potential strikes this year if the government does not heed its call for inflation-linked wage increases for staff in the NHS and local government.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison — which represents 1.3mn mostly public-sector workers — said prime minister Boris Johnson had “no idea” about the huge financial strains facing ordinary people at the moment.
She urged Johnson to find £10bn this year from tax rises to fund pay increases in line with inflation, which is expected to rise to 10 per cent within months.
The intervention by McAnea, whose union is a donor to the opposition Labour party, comes amid growing industrial unrest this summer, with three days of RMT strikes set to cause chaos on the rail network at the end of this month.
The government is trying to hold imminent pay settlements to just 2 per cent — or 3 per cent in some instances — while inflation is racing far ahead because of the global energy price shock.
Wage deals for public-sector workers are already lagging those on offer in the private sector, where employers have been offering big bonuses to keep hold of scarce staff.
Official data shows average total pay growth was 8.2 per cent in the private sector in January to March, against 1.6 per cent in the public sector — one of the biggest gaps on record.
McAnea told the Financial Times that the rising cost of fuel bills and soaring petrol costs meant many public-sector workers were struggling. Without inflation-proof pay rises, many staff in public services would quit to find better-paying jobs elsewhere, she warned.
“The government in Westminster has completely forgotten who got the country through the pandemic and the impact on public-sector workers of that,” she said.
“Care workers who were having to hold the hands of dying patients because the families couldn’t get to them . . . for [the government] to say, you need to show pay restraint, is completely inappropriate.”
Her plea came as Johnson insisted that the government would hold firm in the face of higher wage demands, warning that a “wage-price spiral” would lead to higher interest rates — forcing up rents and mortgages and the cost of borrowing for business and government.
“When a country faces an inflationary problem, you can’t just pay more and spend more,” he said in a speech in Lancashire. “You have to find ways of tackling the underlying causes of inflation. If wages continually chase the increase in prices, then we risk a wage price spiral.”
Some 25,000 Unison members working in schools are balloting for strike action in Scotland this week. Meanwhile Unison with the GMB and Unite unions have submitted a joint submission to local government for a pay rise for 1.4mn council and school workers of either £2,000 or keeping pace with retail price index inflation — which is generally higher than the consumer price inflation rate targeted by the Bank of England.
Other unions representing public-sector workers are also threatening industrial action over pay: the Public and Commercial Services union is preparing to ballot its civil service membership, while the National Education Union is moving towards a potential ballot in the autumn.
McAnea said Boris Johnson’s government had been ignoring union leaders for years and had instigated the toughest industrial action legislation in Europe: “They just don’t talk to us,” she said.
She added that Unison took part in hundreds of disputes every year which did not result in strike action but did result in higher wages for members.
“We don’t want to bring our low-paid workers out to strike but if there’s no alternative what else can people do?” she asked.
McAnea said that Unison members already paid a disproportionate amount of their income on fuel, housing and transport costs. “They lead what my mother would call a hand-to-mouth existence where there’s no money left at the end of the week or month to save for anything.”