UK teachers may go on strike as Sunak battles to contain unrest

A strike by teachers could have knock-on repercussions in the wider workforce, with parents forced to stay at home. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - Teachers may join hundreds of thousands of UK employees taking industrial action as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s administration battles to contain a surge of worker unrest over pay that’s failing to keep pace with rampant inflation.

The National Education Union on Monday will announce the results of a strike ballot, with NEU General Secretary Mary Bousted telling Times Radio on Sunday she’s “confident” the vote will meet the minimum threshold required.

The union would then have two weeks to notify employers before they can take action, giving time for talks, she said.

“We are saying to the government get around the table and start negotiating,” Ms Bousted said. “Our members don’t want to take strike action, they have been driven to it by government neglect.”

A vote in favour of strikes would pile more pressure onto Mr Sunak, whose administration is already grappling with industrial action by nurses, ambulance drivers and rail workers. A strike by teachers could have knock-on repercussions in the wider workforce, with parents forced to stay at home.

Nurses plan to strike again on Wednesday and Thursday, with ambulance workers planning a walkout next week. On Feb 1, some 100,000 civil servants have announced plans to join the industrial action.

The NEU vote comes after only 42 per cent of members voted in a ballot of another teachers’ union, NASUWT, meaning that although 9 in 10 were in favour of industrial action in state schools, the vote wasn’t valid. Nevertheless, the union did secure a mandate for strikes at more than 130 private schools.  

Teaching unions argue that the 5 per cent pay rise offered to most teachers fails to keep pace with inflation at more than 10 per cent, while saying a 20 per cent cut in real terms over the past decade has led to a staff exodus.

But the Conservative government has taken a hardline on remuneration, saying bigger pay awards risk stoking inflation. Mr Sunak’s administration has also provoked the ire of unions by proposing legislation to limit strikes and ensure minimum service levels in key industries.

The controversial Bill will return to the House of Commons on Monday for its second reading amid a clamour of opposition. The Labour Party is opposing the legislation as well as government attempts to fast-track it through Parliament. Leader Keir Starmer has said if it’s passed, he’d repeal the law in government.

“This shoddy, unworkable Bill won’t do a thing to help working people or avoid strikes,” Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner said in a statement. “Instead of getting round the negotiating table to resolve disputes, they’re pouring petrol on the fire.”

Under the proposed law, minimum service levels would be required on strike days for fire, ambulance and rail services, with the government consulting on the adequate level of coverage.

The legislation also covers health care, education, nuclear decommissioning, border security and other modes of transport, but those sectors will be subject to voluntary agreements.

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Paul Nowak said in a statement that far from averting strikes, the legislation will only “make matters worse.” He called it a “full-frontal attack on the right to strike” and accused ministers of “trying to steamroller it through parliament, without proper consultation or scrutiny.” 

Ministers last week held a series of meetings with unions in an attempt to defuse the disputes, and some signs of progress have emerged.

Better offer

On Sunday, Transport Secretary Mark Harper told the BBC that “I made sure after I met the trade union leaders, that there was a better deal on the table for rail workers.”

He said that any pay rise needs to be accompanied by reform to “free up money,” but suggested there’s flexibility from the government on the issue of insisting train guards are phased out, leaving services managed only by the train driver. 

There was also a glimmer of hope from British Medical Association Chair Philip Banfield, whose union is balloting members over taking action. He told Sky News on Sunday that strikes “are not inevitable at all” and that his first meeting with Health Secretary Steve Barclay “was not as negative as I was expecting.”

Mr Barclay last Monday signaled flexibility in talks with health unions, saying he’s open to backdating the next pay rise for health workers to cover part of the present fiscal year.

While government officials see a deal on railways closer than one on health care, senior Tories – conscious that nurses benefit from considerable public sympathy – have called on Mr Sunak to make them a more generous pay offer.

An Opinium poll at the weekend found that 57 per cent of Britons support the nurses’ strike, with 31 percent opposing. Net support for industrial action by ambulance workers is +17 per cent, while for railway workers, it’s minus 7 per cent. BLOOMBERG

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