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What's Going On With Public Sector Pay And Strikes?

The government has agreed to raise the public sector pay cap, but critics say it still doesn't match the higher cost of living, and many may be willing to strike over it.

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The ongoing dispute over public sector pay has well and truly come to a head.

As part of wider austerity measures, workers whose pay is set by the government, such as NHS staff, police, prison officers, firefighters, and teachers, had their pay frozen in 2010, and since 2013 they have not been allowed pay increases that exceed 1% of their annual wage. This is known as the public sector pay cap.

But with the cost of living increasing at a greater rate than public sector pay – inflation currently stands at 2.9% – many have found themselves worse off. There have even been reports of some public sector workers using food banks when their pay can't meet basic living costs.

In real terms, a police officer is £3,494 per year worse off since 2010, while nurses have seen a loss of £3,111 and firefighters have taken a £2,424 cut, according to analysis by BuzzFeed News.

"The message we are getting loud and clear from teaching assistants, social workers, paramedics, and other public service staff is that they need more money," a spokesperson for Unison, which represents 1.3 million public sector workers in the UK, told BuzzFeed News.

In June, MPs narrowly voted to keep the 1% cap, but continued criticism, including protests by nurses, has led the government to agree to reconsider public sector pay in November's budget.

But some trade unions have indicated that if pay isn't increased to bring it at least in line with living costs, their members may be willing to strike, leading to fears that 2018 could bring a repeat of 1978's "Winter of Discontent", which saw a string of large-scale public sector strikes.

Nurses have said they would be willing to stage walkouts over pay.

In a survey of more than 50,000 members of the nurses' union the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) this summer, almost 80% said they would support industrial action if a legally required ballot was held on whether they should strike.

"If Theresa May fails to lift the pay cap in this autumn’s Budget, that goes on the table immediately," Janet Davies, chief executive of the RCN, said.

Last week, thousands of nurses protested outside parliament to amplify their demand for increased pay. "We’re not asking for hundreds of thousands of pounds, we’re asking to be able to live," Amy, a nurse from Basingstoke, told BuzzFeed News.

During an opposition day debate in parliament on Wednesday, Labour demanded a commitment from the government that the pay cap would be lifted for nurses in 2018.

"Our campaign will not cease until there is concrete proof that the cap has been lifted explicitly for next year’s discussions on nurse and NHS pay," Davies added.

The doctors' union, the British Medical Association (BMA), has also issued a demand to the government for higher salaries, blaming the public sector pay cap for increasingly poor staff morale.

While the BMA does not currently have a mandate for industrial action, and a spokesperson for the union told BuzzFeed News that there are no imminent plans to hold a ballot on the issue, a string of strikes by doctors in 2016 suggest they could be willing to stage further walkouts if it comes to it.

Teachers have also said they will strike over pay.

Threats of strikes by teachers have loomed throughout 2017 as a result of a crisis in the profession that has already led to more than 34,000 teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement.

Pay is thought to be a major contributing factor, with teachers having seen a real-terms pay cut of around 14%, according to teachers' union the NASUWT.

“We know that teacher supply is in crisis, and without sufficient teachers the education of children will suffer," Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said. "Giving teachers a fair pay rise is a crucial part of solving that problem."


The recent merging of two teachers' unions, the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, means that members would have to be re-balloted in order for strike action to go ahead, but fellow union NASUWT has a live mandate for industrial action and is already engaged in organising strikes by teachers who have not even been given the minimum pay rise.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, told BuzzFeed News the union had conducted research that showed the negative impact a lack of pay increases was having on members. "Many young teachers are now relying on credit and debt or moving back home with their parents because they cannot pay their rents," she said.

Didn't police and prison officers just get a pay rise?

The government has agreed to raise pay for prison officers by 1.7%, and police will get a 1% pay rise plus a 1% bonus for the year, but critics have pointed out that this still amounts to a pay cut because the increase is below inflation, which currently stands at 2.9%.

No extra money is being offered by the government to cover the pay rises, which could lead to job losses in the police and prison services in order to meet the costs of higher wages.

The government has also been accused by trade unions, as well as by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, of playing different public sector professions off against one another by not making the pay rise universal.

"Public servants are a team," Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC), said. "They have all earned a pay rise that at least matches the cost of living."

Police and prison officers can't go on strike, but they don't seem very happy about the offer.

The Prison Officers' Association outright rejected the 1.7% pay increase they were offered by the government, and while the Police Federation said it had no choice but to accept the offer, Steve White, the union's chair, said the raise seemed insufficient in light of the "immensely demanding role [police] perform".

The below-inflation pay rise for police and prison officers has not done much to quell the unrest across the rest of the public sector either, with TUC general secretary O'Grady calling it "pathetic".

"If ministers think a derisory rise like this will deal with the staffing crisis in our public services, they are sorely mistaken," she said. "The government needs to identify where this money is coming from. It can't be loaded on to our already-stretched public services."

Strikes by other public sector workers are seen as a last resort, though, and unions are still hoping to avoid them.

Len McCluskey, the leader of the Unite union, which represents public as well as private sector workers, said that he would back members striking without a mandate in order to hold coordinated strikes across professions to press the government on raising the cap ahead of the Budget.

But generally unions seem to be taking a more cautious approach, urging representatives across public sector professions to come together to find ways to lobby the government on pay without having to go as far as staging walkouts.

A "winter of discontent" is exactly what public sector workers are hoping to avoid, and BuzzFeed News understands that strikes are not currently imminent among the biggest unions.

A spokesperson for Unite told BuzzFeed News that there were currently no plans to ballot members on industrial action.

A spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) told BuzzFeed News that it was currently in the process of surveying members to gauge the desire for industrial action, but that the possibility of strikes was not off the table.

"If there are no real concessions by the government in November we will hold a ballot," he said.

The PCS spokesperson called the increase offered to police and prison officers “totally unacceptable” and called for a total scrapping of the pay cap for all public sector workers.

"Strike action is always a last resort," a spokesperson for Unison said. "Our focus between now and the Budget is to persuade the government that the pay cap must be lifted for everyone."

While Unison's spokesperson said they would never rule out strikes, they said their main priority at the moment is lobbying MPs to remove the pay cap.

"There must be an above-inflation pay rise for all public sector workers," they continued. "This would finally ensure they can start to achieve the decent standard of living they all deserve."

GMB, which represents public sector workers in local government as well as support staff in schools, the police force, and the NHS, also didn't rule out strikes in the future, but is currently focusing on pushing for a 5% pay increase for its members.

"Industrial action is always a last resort, however GMB’s public sector members are furious with the way they have been treated," Rehana Azam, GMB national secretary for public services, told BuzzFeed News.

"This week's drip-drip government announcement won’t do anything for staff morale," Azam said.

"We will go through the proper processes and our members will decide what action, if any, we take."

Right now, whether strikes go ahead seems to rest on what happens in November's Budget.

The government has said that the 1% pay cap will be lifted, but whether or not strikes go ahead seems very much to rest on how much it's raised by.

"1.7% is not breaking the cap when inflation is at 2.9%," the POA's spokesperson said following the announcement of raises for police and prison officers. "It’s an insult to hardworking people and a significant loss in salary again for the seventh consecutive year."

Unions are demanding that the pay cap be lifted to allow public sector wages to increase by up to 5%, or at least to match the increase in living costs, and will be lobbying the government to that effect in the coming months.

Whether or not a winter of walkouts awaits us will depend very much on what comes out of chancellor Philip Hammond's red briefcase in November.

Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

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