As Britain prepares for its biggest rail strike for a generation, union leaders have warned that industrial action will spread across the country without government backing for wage rises.
The issue is how wide-ranging such action will be, when it will occur, and how much of an impact it will have.
This week’s rail strikes, led by the RMT rail union, revolve around salaries and redundancies — disputes echoed in other industries, as the government seeks to hold public sector wages below inflation.
Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, has suggested other unions might join in co-ordinated action, as his members “dig in” for a long stand-off with rail sector employers.
The TSSA, which represents rail sector managers, and Aslef, the drivers’ union, are organising their own ballots with a view to launching action at some train operators later in the summer.
A broader confrontation between the government and public sector workers is looming. Ministers are preparing to announce below-inflation pay deals for millions of teachers, doctors, nurses and local government workers whose earnings are already lower in real terms than they were in 2010, at the start of a decade of austerity policies.
With inflation heading for double figures, Boris Johnson’s call — made last October — for businesses to raise wages to resolve labour market shortages seems long ago.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said people from all walks of life supported the rail workers and could take similar action if the government continued “picking a fight” with unions for political ends.
Unions representing public sector workers have been calling for pay awards that would not only compensate them for rising living costs, but also regain ground lost over the past decade.
But, despite increasingly heated rhetoric, some union officials privately play down talk of a “summer of discontent”. The RMT has long been one of the UK’s more radical unions, wielding more power than most because of its ability to bring the country to a halt.
Others will want to test sentiment among their members carefully before trying to clear the legal hurdles that make it difficult to launch strike action at national level.
“The decision to go on strike is never an easy one and the law makes taking action incredibly difficult . . . But if the government imposes below-inflation settlements on public sector workers, they’re likely to ask unions to run formal strike ballots,” said a spokesman for Unison, which has around 1.3 million members in public services.
It is balloting some 25,000 of its members working in Scottish schools on possible action.
Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, said pay was rapidly becoming a bigger issue than workload among teachers.
“We are getting messages from people who are saying they can’t afford petrol in their car to drive to work,” he said, adding that the squeeze was worsening longstanding difficulties with teacher recruitment and retention.
The NEU plans to run a “temperature check” to gauge the appetite for action among its members early in the autumn term, before holding a ballot for industrial action later in September or October.
Junior doctors — who last went on strike in 2016 in protest over changes to their contracts — are also gearing up for potential action as they reach the end of a four year pay deal.
The British Medical Association, which has called for the government to compensate them for the real terms pay cuts suffered since 2008, said that if its demands were not met within six months, it could hold a ballot on industrial action early in 2023.
The Royal College of Nursing, which represents almost half a million healthcare workers, contends that a pay rise 5 percentage points above inflation is needed to retain staff and draw new recruits to the profession. It is waiting to see the recommendations of the NHS pay review body, and the government’s response, before deciding on a course of action.
Criminal barristers are stepping up action on legal aid and plan walkouts for several days over each of the next four weeks.
More generally, while the scale of national action remains in doubt, both unions and employers say pay negotiations are becoming more fractious, with strikes becoming more likely to emerge at local level in individual workplaces in both the public and private sectors.
Hackney is among the local authorities where strikes have broken out over a 1.75 per cent pay offer that was set nationally by the Local Government Association, in the teeth of opposition by three unions — Unison, the GMB and Unite.
O’Grady said anger is rising among workers, not only because they were being asked to take a hit while corporate profits were rising, but because they felt the government had “abandoned working families” and was trying to gain political capital from a confrontation.
“I’ve been asked a number of times where we are going to be coordinating action, and I wouldn’t rule that out,” she said. “But the point is that workers are coordinating themselves, not out of any deliberate strategy but because millions of workers are now facing low pay, insecurity and real cuts to their pay packets”.