Workers in the UK are experiencing the longest wage squeeze in over 200 years. They earn on average £900 less a year in real terms than before the 2008 financial crisis, and the Resolution Foundation has predicted that average wages are not expected to return to 2008 levels until 2027.
But it is public sector workers who have suffered the most. TUC analysis shows that on average nurses are now paid £5,000 less a year in real terms than they were in 2010. For paramedics and midwives that figure is £6,000 per year. Police officers and prison officers have seen their real pay drop by 13% and 10.4% respectively since 2009. Pay for secondary and primary school staff has fallen by 9.7% and 11.8%. And as inflation has soared and energy prices have soared, it is public sector workers who face the biggest real wage cuts, with average nominal wage offers below the private sector average. It is in this context that many of them – from nurses to teachers to border guards – will go on strike in the coming weeks. Many of these workers are people who have continued to work during the pandemic, putting their health and that of their families at risk to maintain the provision of essential services. Yet successive Tory chancellors have managed to cut public services over the past decade by forcing public sector workers to endure real pay cuts. The NHS is subsidized by nurses’ pay cuts. Teachers are paid less to keep school expenses as low as possible.
For many lower-paid workers in the public sector, this is reaching a tipping point. First, their personal finances: data from the Trussell Trust shows that nurses are among those forced to rely on food banks to feed their families. A quarter of NHS hospital trusts say they have set up such banks to help their staff get through the winter.
Second, there are the severe staffing shortages experienced by many public sector professions. One in 10 hospital posts are vacant, which affects patient safety and the quality of services, and increases pressure on other staff. Vacancies for teachers are at their highest rate since the first national data collection in 2010. This is due both to experienced health and education staff leaving their profession due to burnout and low pay, and recruitment problems due to low starting salaries. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has argued, low and declining salaries in the public sector relative to the private sector are a huge recruitment and retention challenge. This materially affects the quality of hospitals and schools.
Third, in some sectors, such as rail, wage increases below inflation are also conditional on “modernization”, which usually involves compulsory layoffs in a world where there are virtually no resources to draw on to retrain; this often means accepting being unemployed or working in a far less well-paying job in the long term.
This is why many groups of public sector workers are voting and planning a strike that will cost them money in the short term. The wage offers on the table represent further reductions in real wages and are not sustainable. They will “integrate” increased hardship among workers like nurses, teachers and paramedics, and a further decline in the quality of public services.
The government has responded by arguing that many of the pay deals have been recommended by independent pay review bodies and so it cannot interfere with them. It is dishonest: it is the government itself which sets its attributions and the ministers have already diverged from their recommendations. Rishi Sunak and cabinet ministers erroneously claim that it would cost an additional £1,000 per household to keep public sector wages constant in real terms, taking into account 11% inflation.
Rather than meet with the unions and strike a deal, the government is threatening to introduce new legislation to limit public sector workers’ power to strike. The Trade Unions Act 2016 has already introduced strict conditions on strikes which have eroded the power of workers to secure a fair wage settlement. The new proposals include legislation on minimum service levels in “critical” sectors, a ban on strikes by different unions at the same workplace for a specified period, requiring new ballots for each strike and the obligation for union members to vote in favor of the strike. stock.
According to legal advice from Michael Ford KC, for the TUC, many of these proposals would put the UK at risk of breaching its obligations under international law. It is in any case inconceivable that new legislative curbs could be voted on by Parliament and implemented in the coming weeks even if they did not expose the government to a major legal challenge.
The government must come to the table and negotiate with the unions to avoid the major disruptions that the strikes will cause in the coming weeks. Low-paid public sector workers deserve not to be left materially worse off after a decade of real pay cuts. Trying to put the blame on “union bosses” and repressing the public with vague promises to further restrict the power to strike of nurses and teachers will not reduce it when voters can see with their own eyes the impact of low staffing levels in areas such as the health and education. It is the government, not the beleaguered workers, that will be held accountable.