Civil service union chief warns ministers to expect more strikes as rail walkout starts

Industrial action will spread beyond the rail industry if government fails to tackle cost-of-living crisis, Mark Serwotka says
Photo: Andrew Hasson/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

21 Jun 2022

The leader of the UK's biggest civil service union has told ministers to expect “high levels of industrial action” that extend well beyond the rail industry if workers delivering public services are asked to accept more real-terms pay cuts at a time of double-digit inflation.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka gave his warning ahead of today's national rail and London Underground strike – the first of three walkouts by the RMT union planned this week, which are expected to see the cancellation of 80% of services.

The RMT says it has been offered a 2-3% rise – broadly in line with what has been tabled for civil servants. The Bank of England is projecting inflation will hit 11% later this year and its expectations for inflation have recently been increasing on a monthly basis.

PCS had been seeking a 10% cost-of-living rise for civil servants before inflation began to surge. It is due to ballot its 150,000 members on strike action in the autumn if ministers do not improve on their current proposals for departmental  and agency staff.

Speaking on Sky News yesterday, Serwotka said this week’s rail strikes would only be the beginning of a period of major disputes that would include civil servants and teachers, whose pay has already been subjected to more than a decade of real-terms erosion.

“We will see high levels of industrial action across the public sector unless the government takes decisive action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis,” he said.

“Frontline public sector workers, who kept the country running during the pandemic, cannot be expected to have a 2% pay rise when inflation is forecast to be over 11%.

“That is a historic cut in living standards. People cannot afford it, and therefore the government needs to do something about it and if they don’t then I do believe we are in for quite a lot of industrial action.”

Serwotka said the average wage of PCS's civil service members was just under £24,000 and staff had no appetite for the real-terms value of their earnings to fall further.

“It’s often rich people that tell those who haven’t got much that they’ve got to be realistic about pay. But what the government knows, if they take their own workforce, is we have 11 years of pay cuts in real terms already,” he said.

“When tens of thousands of civil servants have to claim in-work benefits because their pay is already so low, saying 'be realistic' just doesn’t cut it, because it doesn’t pay your fuel bill, doesn’t pay your council tax hike and it doesn’t help you put food on the table. Only a real-terms pay rise does that.”

Civil service unions say the decade of pay freezes and sub-inflation capped rises since David Cameron’s coalition government came to power in 2010 have resulted in a 20% cut in real-terms earnings for many officials over the period.

Further rail strikes are due to stop the majority of services in England and Wales on Thursday and Saturday this week.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has repeatedly insisted that pay issues are a matter for train-operating companies and not the government. 

However, Network Rail, which is understood to have tabled a 2-3% offer, is an arm’s-length body accountable to the Department for  Transport, while DfT’s OLR Holdings Limited company runs London North Eastern Railway and Northern services.

Treasury minister’s “blatant attempt to pass the buck on pay”

Separately, the deputy general secretary of the Prospect union criticised chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke for comments he made in another Sky News interview yesterday. 

Warning public servants not to expect double-digit pay rises, Clarke said: “I’m not going to pre-empt the results of the individual pay review bodies but I think it is unlikely that they will match the headline rate of inflation at the rates we’re now seeing.”

Garry Graham said Clarke’s suggestion that public-sector pay was determined by independent pay-review bodies showed a “shocking lack of knowledge” of different arrangements for different parts of the public sector.

“This may be true for a number of areas such as the NHS, teaching, and the military – but for the vast majority of the civil service it is not,” he said.

Only senior civil servants have their pay decided by an independent pay review body and they represent a small percentage of the workforce.”

Graham said that even without the “glaring factual error”, Clarke was guilty of a “blatant attempt to pass the buck on pay”.

“To hold your hands up in the face of the worst cost of living crisis in a generation and simply say ‘it’s not me guv’ is an abdication of responsibility,” he said.

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