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Unions Accuse Government Of Refusing To Engage To End Strike Deadlock

PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka announce strike dates at the Home Office over the festive period (Alamy)

4 min read

Unions have accused the government of continually "refusing to engage” in meaningful pay negotiations to avert widespread strikes, despite a recent softening in tone from ministers.

On Wednesday, the PCS union which represents tens of thousands of civil service workers, announced a series of major walkouts at airports across the UK over Christmas and New Year, saying they were forced into it because “no money has been put on the table” by the government.

Additional strikes on the railways over the festive period were also outlined by the RMT earlier this week, with general secretary Mick Lynch saying train companies were “seeking to ratchet up the dispute”.

A deal has also failed to be struck between government and NHS staff over pay and conditions which has led nurses, ambulance workers and other hospital staff to hold industrial action later this month. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has threatened to toughen strike laws in order to mandate minimum service from a wider range of emergency workers, dampening strikes, although figures within the Conservative party doubt such laws could be passed any time soon.  

A trade union source told PoliticsHome that they blame Cabinet ministers in departments that oversee sectors affected by strikes for not allowing proper discussions about increased pay.

They said there’s frustration at the RMT and elsewhere, that while the new transport secretary Mark Harper has dropped the “machismo” tone favoured by his predecessor Grant Shapps, he has still not done enough with the mandate for the rail firms to negotiate to allow for a meaningful breakthrough.

“When Mark Harper came in, there was a real sense of wanting to engage with him and trying and find a settlement, but so far the Department for Transport (DfT) still isn't allowing the train operating companies to make the kind of offer that the RMT can sell back to its members,” they said.

“Hence the frustration on that front, more talks are scheduled, but it's going to require political will on behalf of the Government to unblock the log-jam.”

While the government's stance remains that it is not for the transport secretary or the rail minister Huw Merriman to get involved in the negotiations, a source close to Harper said they continue to “try and best facilitate a resolution to the dispute”. Unions disagree, and feel the DfT is “the key player in all of this”.

"We have a slight concern that the government is adopting this more friendly, engaging tone, but actually, behind the scenes is being as intransigent as it ever was,” the union source added. 

They said Health Secretary Steve Barclay has had several meetings with the nursing and other health unions in recent weeks, but added “that they felt more like photo opportunities” as the government will not re-open formal negations on NHS pay, saying it is set by an independent body.

“If you don't create a landing zone, what option is left for unions to take other than strikes?” the source added.

At a press conference on Wednesday, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka confirmed that Border Force workers would strike over the Christmas period. 

“We have tried for months to negotiate with the government and have been ignored," he said. 

“We keep being told the government has an open door but there's no point if there's nothing behind that.

“No money has been put on the table, no assurances have been given to the hard pressed people that we represent, therefore, we have now sadly had to embark on calling industrial action that is going to have a major effect for people who use our public services.”

Serwotka said he has met Government ministers this week, but they were refusing to increase a 2 per cent pay rise.

He said around 1,000 Border Force workers will strike between 23 and 31 December at Birmingham, Cardiff, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester airports, as well as the port of Newhaven.

Earlier this autumn almost 100,000 PCS members working in more than 120 government departments and bodies voted in favour of strikes, with Serwotka warning the union’s action “will escalate in the New Year” if the Government won’t come back to the negotiating table.

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