Europe

Rishi Sunak bets Brits will blame striking workers for Christmas chaos

LONDON — Rishi Sunak has a striking problem: the British prime minister is struggling to make union barons the bogeymen and women as Christmas chaos looms.

Britain’s most powerful rail union, the RMT, upped the ante on Monday, announcing workers will walk out from Christmas Eve through to December 27 as a long-running row over pay and conditions escalates. On Tuesday, thousands of ambulance staff said they would take to the picket lines on December 21.

It’s just the latest in a raft of strike action agreed by unionized workers. Nurses have vowed to walk out on December 15 and 20, while postal workers are also withdrawing their labor in a crucial period for getting festive cards and gifts through the door.

Yet ministers are showing little inclination to get their hands dirty and improve pay offers — while No. 10 has suggested it believes voters are on their side, at least when it comes to the rail dispute. 

The PM’s spokesman this week called on unions to “recognize that they still have time to step back and reduce some of the misery that awaits,” something “the public and the government want to see.”

It is a big gamble, say those tracking public opinion — who warn that voters are less inclined to give the ruling Conservatives a hearing after months of political chaos that’s seen the country cycle through three Tory leaders within months.

“If this were a government which were riding high generally it would be much easier for them to say the bad stuff is happening because of unions,” U.K. director of the consultancy More in Common Luke Tryl, a former government adviser, said. “Because it’s not, because of everything that’s happened and the general perception this is a tired government that isn’t really working, and is very divided, that makes it much harder to put the blame elsewhere.”

The soaring cost of living in the U.K. is certainly helping to drive the walkouts. Inflation as measured by consumer prices rose 11.1 percent in the 12 months to October 2022, and the world’s largest economies are grappling with price pressures as the war in Ukraine keeps energy and food prices elevated.

But in Britain the global economic pressures follow a decade of public sector spending cuts and pay restraint, emboldening public workers in their demands for higher pay settlements.

Since becoming transport secretary last month, Mark Harper has been keen to present himself as a facilitator in talks between operators and unions — but insisted an agreement must include modernization and savings for taxpayers. Health Secretary Steve Barclay has meanwhile warned nursing demands are “out of step” with the economic situation faced by the U.K.

Yet opinion polls show support for striking workers, particularly nurses, is high. A survey conducted for the Mirror newspaper by Redfield and Wilton Strategies last week found 54 percent support for nurses ahead of their planned strike for an above-inflation pay rise, with only 23 percent against.

And even some Conservative MPs are questioning the government’s tactics. One senior Tory said it would be “cleverer” to offer an 8 percent pay rise this year and nothing next year, when they expect headline inflation to fall. “By next year, if we can sort of limp through, it will be looking much better,” they added.

But the unions should still tread carefully as they mull disruption to the festive season, those charting public opinion warn.

Snap polling for YouGov on Tuesday found half of Britons oppose rail union plans to strike over Christmas, while 37 percent support the strikers. 

Network Rail, whose workers are striking, said its latest offer — which the RMT has urged its members to reject — included a 5 percent pay rise this year, and 4 percent lift next year.

“People’s dominant frame on this stuff is fairness,” Tryl said. “At the moment the unions are winning the fairness argument.”

But he warned the public could turn if unions start asking for more than others are getting, and the timing of the latest strike could also test the public tolerance threshold to breaking point.

“Christmas occupies such a sacrosanct place in British public life … that will be seen as unfair,” he cautioned.




Source link

Related Articles

Back to top button