It’s day one of the RMT’s planned strike action after last-minute talks between train operators and Network Rail failed. The union has been demanding a pay rise of at least 7 per cent in the face of inflation – as well as opposing planned redundancies. The dispute is just a taste of things to come from various parts of the public sector.
The government line is that big percentage point pay rises are the wrong course of action as they will make the current economic picture worse. Simon Clarke, chief secretary to the Treasury, said this week that it was ‘not a sustainable expectation that inflation can be matched in pay offers’. With the Bank of England forecasting that inflation will hit 11 per cent this year, Boris Johnson said that it is right that public sector workers are rewarded with a pay rise ‘but this needs to be proportionate and balanced’. The problem is that if it is below inflation, no one is going to feel much better off compared to a year or so ago.
As I reported last month in the magazine, there are some in government keen for the fight these days, whether it is the courts over the Rwanda policy, Brussels on the Protocol or civil servants and the working from home battle. Strikes fall into this category – with aides believing there is a political opportunity in facing down the unions and exposing division in Labour. Just look how Tory MPs today are trying to brand the strikes as being supported by Labour, with shadow ministers giving mixed messages on whether workers were right to strike over pay. Sir Keir Starmer has attempted to rebut this today by banning frontbenchers from picket lines this week (an order some of his team are already defying).
If the attack lines stick, it’s easy to see how people fed up with travel disruption could look unsympathetically at the unions and those who appear to be supporting them. But there are two unknowns. First, after two years of remote working through the pandemic, do mass rail strikes cause the same level of disruption that they used to? Many people can simply pivot to working from home for the week – even if it hurts businesses that rely on commuters. Second, if the strikes become widespread and across multiple industries, the government will come under increasing pressure to be more generous. When a politician on a six-figure salary urges lower-paid workers to adopt pay restraint, there is plenty of potential for the row to backfire.
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