18 April 2008
Public sector unions are set to pose the most serious challenge yet to Gordon Brown's pay policy, when civil servants and teachers lead a co-ordinated walkout next week, involving hundreds of thousands of workers.
Seven days before the local elections in England and Wales, more than 100,000 staff from ten government departments and agencies will strike, along with 200,000 National Union of Teachers members and 27,500 college lecturers in England.
The Public and Commercial Services union said the April 24 action was in protest at the 'common effect' of government pay policy across wide sections of the public sector.
It says the government's argument that public sector pay fuels inflation is discredited and that workers, often already on low pay, are alienated by a policy of below-inflation pay caps and pay freezes.
NUT estimates put the number of schools expected to close as a result of the action at between half and the 'vast majority'. Colleges might also be forced to close for the day.
The PCS expects most government offices to remain open but offering seriously reduced services. General secretary Mark Serwotka told Public Finance: 'The message is that public sector workers aren't prepared to sit down and take pay cuts in real terms. They aren't prepared to see their pay driven down. As a union we have always been quite clear that where unions are fighting a common problem, it makes more sense for them to work together.'
PCS members at the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office, Department for Transport and five government agencies are taking part in the protest. They include coastguards, driving examiners and immigration, job centre and benefits staff.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman told PF that determining pay awards was the responsibility of individual departments and agencies, taking account of particular labour market pressures.
'Nevertheless, Cabinet Office officials continue to negotiate and work with key stakeholders, including the civil service unions, to improve the operation of the delegated arrangements. We are always disappointed when union members resort to taking industrial action,' she added.
The PCS says a strike on April 11 by staff at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency over lower pay levels compared with other emergency services was strongly supported.
Announcing the April 24 action, Serwotka said: 'The massive show of support for [the] coastguard strike illustrates the resolve of dedicated staff in achieving a fair deal on pay that recognises the important role they play and the rising cost of living they face.'
The University and College Union balloted lecturers at more than 250 colleges on strike action in a bid to bring their pay up to the level of school teachers. The union has asked for a 6% or £1,500 increase (whichever is greater) for 2008/09. Further education lecturers in Wales staged a one-day strike on April 16.
NUT members are walking out over their pay award of 2.45% for 2008 and 2.3% for the following two years. But rival union the National Union of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers said its members were more concerned about workload and there was no 'widespread appetite among teachers for industrial action on pay'.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics on April 15, which showed the annual change in the consumer price index was 2.5% (the measure used by the government) and that the retail price index rose by 3.8%, fuelled union anger.
The NASUWT, in a joint letter with four other education bodies, and the NUT have both asked the government to review the teachers' award in the light of the rise.
Health workers too are gearing up for action. Unison and the Royal College of Nursing have signed up to an 8.1% pay deal over three years from the NHS pay review body, subject to consultation with their members. Unison's health service group conference subsequently agreed to ballot around half a million health workers individually on the offer.
Unite's NHS committee has recommended members reject the deal and reacted angrily to a letter from NHS chief executive David Nicholson on April 7. This said that if the proposal was not accepted, 'the government reserves the right to review its response to the NHS PRB (pay review body) recommendations'.
Unite says the letter was an 'implied threat' to stage the 2008/2009 NHS pay award rather than introduce the increase for the whole year.
In local government branches of Unison, consultation is under way on a 2.45% 2008/2009 pay offer for council workers. The union is recommending members reject the offer, adding that only 'substantial industrial action' would bring employers back to the negotiating table.