Unions cannot be allowed to win rail strike battle: UK Deputy PM

He warns of inflationary spiral resulting from workers' demands for higher pay

LONDON • Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said yesterday the government could not allow unions to win over rail strikes, and gave a warning that their demands could lead to an inflationary spiral.

More than 40,000 rail staff walked out on the first day of Britain's biggest rail strike in 30 years on Tuesday.

"We can't allow, I'm afraid, the unions, in this very militant way that they've proceeded, to win this argument because it will only hurt the poorest in our society," Mr Raab told Sky News.

"It is the lowest paid who suffer the most from strike action, and also if we get into this inflationary spiral that the union's demands would lead to."

Soaring food prices pushed British consumer price inflation to a new 40-year high of 9.1 per cent last month, the highest rate out of the Group of Seven countries and underlining the severity of the cost-of-living crunch.

Underlining a wider sense of malaise in the workforce amid a growing squeeze on living standards, British teachers and postal workers gave warnings of potential industrial action if their pay does not track spiralling inflation.

Teachers will ballot for a strike in October as a last resort if the government refuses to give them pay rises in line with inflation during negotiations over the summer, the 460,000-strong National Education Union's general-secretary Mary Bousted told TalkTV on Tuesday.

Separately, the Communication Workers Union will ballot its 115,000 postal workers next week about proposed strikes over pay, it said on Twitter.

With the Bank of England predicting inflation will reach double digits before the end of the year, Britain is in a broadening cost-of-living crisis that is squeezing household budgets and leading workers to demand pay rises commensurate with price increases.

But ministers have said restraint is needed to avoid stoking further inflation, suggesting public sector workers face pay deals that will not keep pace with rising prices.

The two potential ballots threaten to add to what British media have already called a "summer of discontent" - evoking the "winter of discontent" of 1978-1979, when the country was hit by widespread strikes that led to the downfall of the Labour government.

On Tuesday, the rail network was brought almost to a standstill.

Criminal barristers have also voted to strike next week over the level of their fees.

Further rail strikes are planned for today and Saturday. Mr Mick Lynch, the head of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which is coordinating the train stoppages, has urged broader action across the economy and raised the possibility of the first general strike since 1926.

Those turning to car journeys to avoid the chaos are faced with paying record fuel prices amid an energy crisis exacerbated by Russia's war in Ukraine.

Ms Bousted told TalkTV some teachers cannot afford to fill their tanks to drive to school. She said she would be asking Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi for "a pay rise that matches tomorrow's new rate of inflation" for teachers.

Pay for many public sector workers, including teachers, police and National Health Service workers, is set by the government, taking heed of the advice of independent pay review bodies, which will make their recommendations in the coming weeks. Ministers are not obliged to follow their advice, but must give reasons if they do not.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement late on Monday that "too high demands on pay" will "make it incredibly difficult to bring to an end the current challenges facing families around the world with rising costs of living".

He has advocated "pay discipline and restraint".

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2022, with the headline Unions cannot be allowed to win rail strike battle: UK Deputy PM. Subscribe