Britain faces a wave of industrial unrest this summer as unions, emboldened by Gordon Brown’s climbdown after the 10p tax revolt, ballot millions of members on strike action. Workers in local government, the health service, the Civil Service, the Royal Mail and even the Sellafield nuclear site could join teachers in an escalating confrontation with the Government over pay.
There was further bad news for the Prime Minister as a poll showed that the Conservatives had opened up an 18-point lead over Labour. The YouGov survey put the Tories on 44 per cent, Labour on 26 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent.
Ministers around Mr Brown, determined to restore his battered authority, warned union leaders last night not to try to exploit the Government’s difficulties.
But Mark Serwotka, of PCS, the Civil Service union, said: “The 10p tax U-turn has shown that the Government can change its mind and it needs to change its mind on public sector pay. People on the minimum wage are facing rising fuel, mortgage and food costs and are being expected to take a pay cut in real terms. The Government has to act quickly to stem unrest.”
Yesterday teachers staged their first national strike for 21 years, 100,000 civil servants in Jobcentres and benefits offices walked out over pay and workers at Grangemouth oil refinery prepared to strike over changes to pensions. Teachers are expected to set more dates for strike action.
More than 1.25 million workers in local government are being asked by their unions whether they will accept a 2.45 per cent pay offer. The unions, including Unison, the GMB and Unite, have recommended that the offer be rejected. If their members throw out the deal and no further acceptable offer is made they will be balloted for strike action.
More than 550,000 health workers are also being balloted on a three-year pay offer that starts with a 2.75 per cent increase in the first year. Next month civil servants in the PCS union will decide whether to have a ballot for action across all their 200,000 members in the Civil Service — doubling yesterday’s walkout.
The Royal Mail is locked in talks with the Communication Workers Union and Unite over changes to the pension scheme. Both Royal Mail’s workers and their line managers have already rejected the pension changes in consultative ballots.
At Sellafield, engineers and workers are being balloted to reject a 2 per cent pay offer, with another 2 per cent possible only through cost savings.
One senior source said: “In unions, as with Labour backbenchers, there is a growing mood of impatience and a desire for change. The pressure that built up during the dark days of Blair is now coming to a head and Brown will squander the opportunity if he doesn’t respond.” Brendan Barber, the TUC General Secretary, said: “Public sector workers cannot be expected to suffer cuts in their living standards with repeated pay rounds that fail to keep up with inflation, particularly when private sector pay is moving ahead and energy and housing costs are soaring. The Government needs public servants to be ambassadors for the undoubted improvements and increased spending in many of our public services. Pay below inflation is not the way to do this.”
Pat McFadden, the Cabinet Office minister, issued a warning to unions. “I have been campaigning in Bilston with the Prime Minister today and it’s absolutely clear that he is determined to stick to his task of leading Britain by maintaining economic stability and not being diverted by industrial action.
“It’s in the interests of teachers, civil servants and other public sector workers that Britain keeps to its economic course of high employment and low inflation. That’s what the PM is doing.”
The YouGov survey for The Daily Telegraph was conducted between Monday and Wednesday.
The Winter of Discontent developed from the Government’s failure to impose penalties on Ford Motors after a strike by 60,000 workers led it to defy a 5 per cent pay cap. A “Day of Action” was supported by 1.5 million people, including gravediggers in Liverpool, who continued striking for weeks
Sources: Chronicle of the Twentieth Century; Times archives