Sunak agrees to negotiate salary increases with doctors and nurses to stop the wave of strikes in the United Kingdom | International
Rishi Sunak is about to discover, in early 2023 and just 11 weeks after setting foot on Downing Street, the number one rule of thumb in politics: you can't suck and puff at the same time. Faced with the wave of strikes facing his mandate - nurses, doctors, ambulance workers, public transport, customs and border personnel and teachers - the British prime minister tries to be conciliatory with the unions and tough against his fellow conservatives .
He wanted to send a signal to the former that, finally, he is willing to sit down and negotiate a salary increase. To date, the Government's position was to stay on the sidelines, let the conversations be carried out by the management teams of the different public departments, and adjust to the recommendations issued by the Salary Review Bodies (Pay Review Bodies, PRB, in its acronym in English), which are tables of independent experts attached to each sector whose job is to analyze and suggest changes in the payroll. The increases proposed by the PRB for this year barely represent 2%, compared to an inflation of 10.7%.
The Royal College of Nursing, for example, had called for a 19.2% rise, to help remedy a decade of wage freeze, a colossal cost-of-living crisis and job tension derived from two years of pandemic. The unions have reproached the Government for using the PRB as an excuse to admit any salary modification that could aggravate, in the eyes of Downing Street, the level of inflation. Given the growing social tension and the hardship caused by the different strikes, Sunak said on the BBC this Sunday that he was willing to give up.
“The Government has always indicated that it had no problem in addressing talks [sobre subidas] wages, as long as they were responsible, and that the country could assume them. We are about to start a new independent bargaining process, but before it starts, we are ready to sit down with the unions and talk about salaries,” announced Sunak.
Several affected ministers have begun a round of talks with the different unions on Monday. As on other occasions, however, the devil is in the details. The words of the prime minister do not make it clear if that flexibility announced now includes the salary remuneration for 2023 or rather points to the ongoing negotiations for 2024. Nor does it specify what a responsible increase could be. An exact percentage? How much? A fixed amount in a single payment? This last option is the one suggested by several British media as a possible alternative to avoid a permanent cost that would alter the budget forecasts.
For now, the response from the unions has been skepticism, and they maintain their plans and calls for strike action. "We'll see what the government brings to the table," Patricia Marquis, England region director of the Royal College of Nursing told SKY News. “If there is any glimmer of optimism, through further meetings, I am sure that my colleagues and I will remain optimistic that it is possible to reach an agreement that avoids the planned strikes in March. But the chances of that happening today are not even 50%”, said Marquis.
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Harder has been the response of the Unite central, the most powerful in the United Kingdom, which represents ambulance workers of the National Health Service. The proposal provided by the Government this Monday linked the payment of a single and fixed amount to an increase in productivity, and the unions have considered the request an insult. “Our workers work 18-hour shifts. I don't know how you can be more productive than that,” said Onay Kasab, Unite's national negotiator. “Despite our good faith, the Government has lost another opportunity, and the strike will continue [el 23 de enero es el próximo paro convocado]”, Kasab assured.
Sunak's chances of survival, with a Conservative Party that has already been able to ruthlessly remove three of its leaders in just four years — including the charismatic Boris Johnson — are certainly slim. These depend on his ability to overcome the economic crisis, but above all on his ability to convince hard-line conservatives that his credentials as a man of the right are indisputable. For this reason, together with the ambiguous offer of dialogue launched at the unions —the carrot—, the prime minister has shown the stick to his colleagues tories: Downing Street will follow Go ahead with your idea of promoting new laws in Parliament that toughen the right to strike and impose minimum services.
“We cannot allow, nor will we allow, that the protests carried out by a small minority end up altering the lives of the vast working majority, or that they prevent a mother from taking her children to school or that cancer patients cannot go to their hospital treatments. It is not correct, and we are going to put an end to it," Sunak wrote in ConservativeHome.Com, the website that functions as a forum for discussion and guide to the world of British Conservatives. “We are going to promote new laws – like other countries such as France, Italy or Spain – that strengthen a minimum of security in critical areas, such as ambulance or fire services,” the Prime Minister announced.
Labor opposition leader Keir Starmer has juggled in recent weeks to preserve his reputation as a moderate. Despite the sympathy shown by citizens to groups such as nurses, the British middle class is not comfortable with strikes. Starmer has instructed his deputies—to the chagrin of the unions, and not always obeyed—not to participate in the pickets; and he hasn't been clear about what pay rise he'd be willing to back.
However, he has seen the perfect opportunity in the government's effort to toughen the strike laws. "The idea that industrial relations can be improved by stopping collective conflict is simply ridiculous," Rachel Reeves, Labor's spokeswoman for the Economy and Starmer's right-hand man, told the BBC. “Our ministers have gone from applauding nurses [durante la pandemia] to try to kick them out for exercising their right to strike ”, Reeves has accused.
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