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Roads, Rail And Borders Face "Maximum Disruption” As Public Sector Considers Co-ordinated Strikes

The PCS union said 100,000 civil servants have voted to go on strike from next month in a row over pay and conditions (Alamy)

4 min read

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers could stage co-ordinated walk-outs this winter after civil servants say they have "have reached the crunch point” over pay levels and quality of service.

This week's Autumn Statement will prove a crucial moment in determining whether multiple public sector organisations – including Border force, rail workers, road officials, airport staff, Job Centre workers and many others providing vital services to the UK's infrastructure – decide to strike this winter. 

Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents around 100,000 civil servants in dozens of government departments, announced last week that members could strike for up to six months from December unless demands for a 10 percent pay increase are met by government. Its representatives are keen to resume talks with the Cabinet Office this week.

Reports that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt intends to offer no more than a 2 per cent pay increase to public sector workers have been viewed as “provocative”, according to a trade union source. 

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka is due to meet other union leaders to talk about how they can work together to cause “maximum disruption”, by holding co-ordinated strikes, meaning around a million public sector workers could walk out at the same time. 

For example road officials could take action on the same day as rail workers, and Border Force officials on the same day as airport staff.

“If each union stands on its own, some may win, but most won’t. If all the unions cooperate and take cleverly planned and thought out action, and occasionally get everyone out together, I think we can win,” Serwotka told The Big Issue

“It’s clear that if you don’t have 100,000 workers on strike on one day, but you have a million, it makes a different political pressure on the government that is harder for them to ignore.”

Alongside PCS, two other unions that represent civil servants – Prospect and the FDA – are also preparing for industrial action.

A trade union source told PoliticsHome that members did not want to go on strike, but had been pushed towards it by a decade of low pay and concerns over safety and the delivery of public services.

They said “pay austerity has never ended for public sector workers”. Public sector pay was frozen from 2011 to 2013, then capped at 1 per cent for four years after that, and although the freeze was lifted in 2018, it was then reimposed in 2020, before being lifted again in 2021. Because pay rises are lower than inflation, however, unions argue this still amounts to real-terms pay cuts for workers. 

“Certainly for many public sector workers, they've reached the end of their patience,” they continued.

“What is happening with civil servants is probably this across the piece, whether they are a nurse, a paramedic, or a teacher, across the ‘public service family’ there are the same problems.”

Last week the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) voted for strikes for the first time in their 106-year history.

“It’s rare for this to happen, but I think certainly many people have reached the crunch point where they're saying 'we can't tighten our belts any further, both for our own standards, but also for the quality of the services that we provide', and they’ve got to take action,” the union source added. 

While they recognised that disruption from mass-strikes would have a significant impact on members of the public, they argued that "the government only has itself to blame". 

Ministers have argued pay restraint is needed in order to fill a fiscal black hole of around £40bn.

In response to last week's PCS strike ballot a government spokesperson said they “regret this decision and remain in regular discussion with unions and staff”. 

“The public sector pay awards are a careful balance between delivering value for money for the taxpayer and recognising the importance of public sector workers,” they added. 

The Cabinet Office has said preparations to “minimise” the impact of civil service strikes are underway and that departments will draw on lessons learned during the coronavirus pandemic to keep critical services running.

In a briefing seen by PoliticsHome's sister publication CivilServiceWorld, officials said “significant action” is already being taken across government to “mitigate, as far as possible, the potential impacts of strikes”.

It said there would “inevitably be disruption to some services” if civil servants withdraw their labour, but it added that arrangements were being put in place to minimise this and make sure key services are kept running.

“The experience of responding to unexpected events such as Covid-19 has developed and tested departments’ ability to flex their resources to protect the most critical services,” the briefing said.

“Departments are building on this and preparing contingency measures for resourcing key roles such as training internal staff and prioritising essential business.”

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