Rishi Sunak seeks a way out of the crisis

New work stoppage planned for paramedics, Wednesday January 11, walkout of nurses scheduled for January 18 and 19, not to mention the strikes of bus or train drivers and perhaps, soon, those of teachers and junior doctors … Mainly driven by wage demands, the social movements are not weakening at the start of the year in the United Kingdom, with certain unions (Unite, RMT) even considering a common day of action. A “coordinated strike” to maximize its impact and “obtaining fair salaries for civil servants”, supports the TUC, the British trade union confederation. Unheard of since the 1980s.

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The conflict escalated further on Tuesday, with the presentation in the House of Commons of a bill establishing a minimum service in the event of a strike in the public services. Downing Street may have ensured that its purpose “is not to hinder the right to strike, but to protect the public with a net of minimum services”, the text was immediately baptized “anti-strike law” by the unions. Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, denounced a project “undemocratic, unenforceable and most likely illegal”while the Labor Party promises to abandon it if it comes to power in the general elections scheduled for the end of 2024. In reaction, the British trade unions have called for a big day of demonstrations on February 1 to protect the right to strike.

Behind the scenes, however, the conservative government of Rishi Sunak has clearly softened its tone, especially vis-à-vis health personnel, who are demanding substantial increases in income (at least 10%) to compensate for purchasing power reduced by twelve years of wage stagnation and double-digit inflation since mid-2022. At the end of December, Downing Street still refused any negotiation with the unions, sticking to the conclusions of the Pay Review Body, an advisory body which had advised, in July 2022, an increase of around 4% for the health staff of the public hospital (the National Health Service; NHS).

A possible compromise

But on Monday, Steve Barclay, the Minister of Health, met for the first time with union officials. The meeting may have come to an end, but a Downing Street spokesperson judged it “constructive” and assured that there would be “further discussions very soon”. The differences remain considerable. However, a compromise now seems possible, with the media referring to possible bonuses or salary increases for 2023, with possible retroactive effect.

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