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New strike chaos as teachers and NHS staff warn of action over wages | labor unions

A wave of 1970s-style economic turmoil threatens to spread from railways to public services as unions representing teachers and NHS workers warn of possible union action over wages.

As the country prepares for rail strikes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, which will shut down half of the network, the largest education union, the National Education Union (NEU), told the Observer that unless it gets a wage proposal much closer to inflation by Wednesday, the education secretary will inform Nadhim Zahawi of his plan to get his 450,000 members to vote. The move could lead to strikes at schools in England in the autumn, the union said.

Another flashpoint could come this week as millions of NHS workers up to senior nurse level receive their annual pay offer, which is expected to be significantly lower than inflation, which is currently at 9.2%.

The country’s largest union, Unison, which represents NHS staff, said the government now faces a choice between offering a deal close to inflation or causing a mass exodus of staff along with possible union action in hospitals, at a time when they are already hugely overburdened.

T-shirt says enough is enough
A message on a T-shirt as Unison members take part in the national TUC demonstration in central London. Photo: Yui Mok / PA

The prospect of public service strikes has risen as inflation moves towards double digits, but the Treasury is desperate to keep government spending and the public sector’s payroll in check.

The sense of crisis deepened last week when the Bank of England said inflation would rise to 11% this fall, even after interest rate hikes – which in turn will lead to rising mortgage payments that will add to the cost of living crisis. The final supply to teachers, NHS workers and millions of others in the public sector is expected to be between 3% and 4%.

Kevin Courtney, joint secretary-general of the NEU, said last night that unless the government makes a “substantial” offer above the 3% Zahawi drove earlier this year, the union would vote its members to gauge reactions, then issue a could organize a second vote specifically on industrial action.

“If there is no significant improvement at 3% – which will leave an 8% gap with inflation this year alone – we cannot avoid a vote. The mood among teachers has changed. Last year it was mainly about the workload. This year it is work pressure and wages.

“Teachers make calculations to see where their hourly wages come out. Wages are already 20% lower than in 2010. The tensions are visible. One in eight newly graduated teachers leaves in the first year.”

Last night, another teachers’ union, the NASUWT, joined those looming strikes and said that unless its wage demands were met, it would also vote members on union action in England, Scotland and Wales from November.

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said the quality of NHS services in England is at stake as staff would leave if they were not given a fair pay increase. “The government has a simple choice. Either it delivers sensible rewards, invests in staff and services and reduces delays for patients,” she said. “Or it risks a potential dispute, growing staff shortages and more suffering for the sick.”

Yesterday thousands of people gathered at an event organized by the TUC in central London to demand action from the government over the cost of living crisis. Ben Robinson, 25, who works for a charity, and Frankie Brown, 24, a teacher, were at the protest. Brown said, “Every day, kids in my class go back to homes where they don’t have enough to eat.”

Robinson said: “We have residents entering our offices who choose between feeding their children – not themselves – and paying rent and heating. That’s not a choice anyone should make in one of the largest economies in the world.”

Network Rail said yesterday it planned to resume talks with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) on Sunday over what has been described as the biggest rail shutdown in more than three decades.

Network Rail’s chief negotiator Tim Shoveller said railroad bosses wanted to avoid an “unnecessary and damaging” strike over wages, jobs and benefits. Senior sources say some progress has been made in the talks, but the RMT said yesterday the strikes would go ahead as planned.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, said: “Despite the best efforts of our negotiators, no viable settlements to the disputes have been reached.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the railways were on the brink of a major disruption that would cause havoc across the country: “Children taking exams will experience additional distractions from changing their travel plans. And vulnerable people with long-awaited hospital appointments may not have any. choice but to cancel.”

Ahead of the railway strikes, Eurostar has become the last operator to cancel trains: a total of 41 have been canceled between next Tuesday and Saturday – endangering breaks to France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The company said it saw “unprecedented levels of contact via phone, email and social channels” following the announcement.

Gatwick Express trains do not run on strike days, but limited Southern and Thameslink services between London Victoria or London Bridge and Brighton will serve the airport in West Sussex.

Most operators schedule some form of skeleton service during the three strike days – Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 7:30 am to 6:30 pm. But Merseyrail said today that none of its trains would run in those days, nor would any buses. The only other operator to have canceled all services so far is the Caledonian Sleeper.

Shapps said workers were committing an “act of self-harm” by running away, that union bosses were pushing them to do so “under false pretenses”, and that the strikes were “the last” thing they should do.

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