‘People are really feeling the pinch’: UK unions remain defiant as strike costs bite

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Unions are appealing to the public to give money to support striking workers as they dig in for a winter war of attrition with the government and private sector employers over pay.

The RMT rail union is selling padded jackets and beanies to keep warm on picket lines, along with £1 downloads of a fundraising single by the indie band Primal Scream. Glaswegian postmen have stripped off for a calendar that will aid the Communication Workers Union’s action at Royal Mail, and the Royal College of Nursing’s campaign to increase NHS pay.

Both the CWU and the RCN are calling for donations, while the Public and Commercial Services union is levying an extra £3-£5 a month from members to help it sustain a series of strikes by driving instructors, border guards and Jobcentre staff, among others.

“We must ensure we can sustain this strike, and win” the PCS said in a call to members last month. It expected its first month of targeted action to cost about £1mn in strike pay, which will come from its £3mn fighting fund, so that those directly involved did not lose out. If the dispute escalated to all-member action, however, strike pay for large numbers would become unaffordable.

Ministers’ refusal to discuss pay with public sector unions suggests they are hoping strikes will eventually run their course as financial strains force workers to back down and as public support wears thin.

However, a YouGov poll shows two-thirds of the public support nurses and ambulance crews striking, while half back potential action by teachers. Although rail workers draw less sympathy, a majority blame the government or rail employers for the disruption, rather than unions.

Unions insist they are prepared for a long haul. They point out that donations flow regularly between groups to help those locked in costly disputes. Leaders are also taking a tactical approach by calling out different groups of members at different times in a rolling programme of action designed to cause continuous disruption to services while limiting the hit to individuals’ wages.

The RCN staged its first two days of strikes at just half of the locations in England where it has a mandate for industrial action, leaving open the option to escalate its campaign in the new year. Meanwhile, strikes by ambulance crews — led by the Unison, GMB and Unite unions — involve relatively small numbers but have sparked deep alarm over the potential harm to patients.

The large unions representing NHS workers are able to offer strike pay of £50 a day — or up to £70, in the case of Unite — to staff who apply after losing wages. Workers are still taking a big hit, however: £50 would replace only around half the pre-tax pay of a newly qualified nurse, with anyone further up the pay scale losing more heavily.

“We don’t earn that much and we are losing a day’s pay,” said Cheryl Carr, a nurse working in clinical education at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, who had found it a difficult decision to join the RCN strike.

But the 53-year-old, who travels an hour and a half each way from her home in Luton to the hospital because she cannot afford to live in London, said she was taking a stand for the future of her profession as younger nurses, many with families, struggled to make ends meet.

Cheryl Carr
Cheryl Carr: ‘We don’t earn that much and we are losing a day’s pay’ © Anna Gordon/FT

While many workers express similar resolve, those involved in the longest-running disputes in Royal Mail and the rail industry are coming under increasing financial strain. With a high proportion of their membership involved in the disputes, neither the CWU nor the RMT can afford strike pay, and are instead offering ad hoc hardship payments to those most in need.

Royal Mail claims that about 12,000 postal workers out of the CWU’s membership of 115,000 came to work on the most recent strike days — although the union rejects these reports, inviting doubters to “visit any picket line in the UK” to test its members’ resolve.

Network Rail, the state-owned infrastructure operator, meanwhile noted that more than a third of RMT members had voted to accept its latest pay offer, despite the union urging its rejection, suggesting some would now be willing to compromise rather than lose more pay. The company estimates a signaller on a salary of £56,000 would lose £2,340 over the strikes scheduled for December and January alone, after accounting for Christmas overtime rates.

About 2,000 RMT members went to work during last week’s industrial action, according to Network Rail estimates, leading chief executive Andrew Haines to claim the strikes had begun to “break down”. But the union said there had been “rock-solid support”.

Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, acknowledged that rail workers have had “serious deductions from their wages”, but argued that the clear vote last month to continue strikes showed members were committed to action, despite the squeeze.

The union cancelled a ban on Network Rail staff working overtime when it announced a series of strikes over Christmas, allowing staff to recoup some of their lost earnings. But an RMT official manning a suburban London picket line during last Friday’s strike said some members were now working on strike days because of growing financial pressures.

“People are really feeling the pinch,” she said, estimating most had now lost at least a week’s wages, depending on whether they had been rostered to work on strike days.

The resolve to hold out for a better deal was strongest in areas further from London, she said, but for those paying rent in the capital, “it’s getting really hard”. But she added that with job security and quality at stake, “it’s about so much more than pay”.

Union leaders warn that far from caving in to cost of living pressures, workers who have lost wages will now be determined to hold out until they have something to show for their efforts.

“It is obviously always difficult for people to take strike action because they lose pay. But I think people have also invested a lot in it now,” said Kate Bell, assistant general secretary at the TUC.

“Employers are going to have to recognise that to get things back on an even keel, they’re going to have to recognise the sacrifice those workers have made.”

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