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Strikes In Areas You're Not Expecting Will See "Winter Of Discontent" Spread Far And Wide

Around 100,000 PCS union members have agreed to strike action in more than 100 government bodies (Alamy)

5 min read

Widespread disputes over pay and working conditions mean that it's not just the usual areas of life, such as travel, that will be affected by strikes this winter.

The long-running disputes between the RMT and other rail unions with train operators mean there will continue to be disruption to travel as the year comes to a close, and the postal service will also hold further strikes having failed to strike a deal over pay.

In the NHS, historic strikes by nurses, midwives and paramedics are set to take place this month following years of campaigning by unions over pay and safety concerns. 

But alongside industrial action already dominating headlines, the so-called “winter of discontent” will also inch into other areas of life, as a diverse set of workforces across the country, some whose existence many people may be barely aware of, say they have reached breaking point. 

The threshold for strikes by the civil service union PCS has been met in 126 different government bodies, from museums to the Land Registry to the water regulator, meaning there will be disruption to a whole host of services not usually covered by walkouts. 

So far the exact dates for strikes by almost 100,000 PCS members in the civil service has only been announced in three areas; the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which looks after driving tests, the Rural Payments Agency, which delivers agricultural payments to farmers, and at some JobCentres, which will see disruption to benefit “conditionality” interviews later this month, although it is not expected to affect anyone’s welfare payments.

Many more strikes are expected in the coming weeks, not just at the headquarters of the main government departments but at places like the Charity Commission, which regulates charities, the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, obscure bodies like the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, as well as the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which investigates wrongdoing by officers, the Gambling Commission, the Serious Fraud Office and the Health & Safety Executive.

Walkouts will also take place in the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority, which protects vulnerable and exploited workers, the Equality & Human Rights Commission, which upholds anti-discrimination legislation, the Information Commissioner’s Office, which deals with data protection and freedom of information laws, and Ofgem which sets the domestic energy price cap and regulates gas and electricity firms.

Similarly in justice-related bodies like the Legal Aid Agency, the Government Legal Department, the Parole Board for England & Wales, the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman, Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and the Scottish Prison Service.

The level of disruption at each of these bodies will vary on what proportion of staff have signed up to strike action, but the PCS said action involving all members will be called “to have the maximum effect, including coordinated action with other unions”.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "Our members have spoken and if the government fails to listen to them, we'll have no option than to launch a prolonged programme of industrial action reaching into every corner of public life.”

There could also be further industrial action in the civil service after PCS decided on Tuesday to re-ballot more than 33,000 members so they can potentially join in with the national strikes in the New Year .

In the first ballot staff at the Highlands and Islands Airports, HMRC, Companies House, the Valuation Office Agency, the Care Quality Commission and the Welsh government fell just short of the 50 per cent legal strike threshold, but will be asked again through a postal ballot if they want to change their minds and support it.

Meanwhile another union, Prospect, held an indicative ballot of its public services members which closed on Monday, the results of which could see 30,000 scientists, engineers, managers and technical experts go on strike.

A formal ballot is expected to lead to strike action early next year at organisations including the Met Office, the Health and Safety Executive, UK Health Security Agency, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, which carries out top secret work in areas such as chemical and biological weapons, as well as the Animal and Plant Health Agency, which is battling Britain’s biggest ever outbreak of bird flu.

But a potential strike at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which maintains Britain’s nuclear arsenal, was averted after Prospect accepted a 5 per cent pay offer. 

The action could also mean walkouts at the Food Standards Agency, the Insolvency Service, the Marine Management Organisation, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the Valuation Office Agency, the UK Intellectual Property Office, Valuation Office Agency and Vehicle Certification Agency.

Although the BBC uses MeteoGroup for forecasting, a host of other broadcasters including ITV use the Met Office for forecasting, as well as the armed forces, emergency services and government agencies.

Prospect members had already backed industrial action at the Environment Agency last month, following a similar announcement by Unison, which will affect workers who help predict serious weather events, build and maintain flood defences and regulate industry to prevent environmental harm.

“Everyone in England relies on the Environment Agency, whether they realise it or not,” the union said.

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