A cabinet minister has admitted there will be “disruption and delays” over Christmas as the UK braces for a wave of strikes – but insisted the government’s approach is “sensible and balanced”.
On Wednesday, Border Force staff became the latest workers to announce industrial action over the festive period, with rail workers, bus drivers, nurses, paramedics and postal workers among those already walking out in the coming weeks in a dispute over pay and conditions.
The government has been criticised for failing to stop the strikes, with Union bosses accusing ministers of stonewalling requests for meaningful pay talks.
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, told Sky News that the strikes were “disappointing” but giving in to the union’s demands would cost the taxpayer £28bn and “you can’t spend your way out of inflation”.
She said “we do expect there will be disruption and delays”, following warnings about flight cancellations.
But she said 2,000 soldiers would be drafted in to help with Border Force roles and “we should be extremely grateful to them”.
Last night, Manchester Airport warned some flights are likely to be cancelled over Christmas due to the strikes, while The Business Travel Association said the “entire travel support system will once more be plunged into dealing with cancellations and disruptions” if the walkouts can’t be averted.
With only one day left in December when there are no strikes – the 12th – it was put to the cabinet minister that general strikes bring down governments, as seen in the 1970s.
Ms Keegan said: “Well, I mean, that has happened in history for sure.”
However, she insisted the government was taking the right approach by not interfering in the pay negotiations, saying the disputes were between “unions and the paymasters”.
Unions are demanding pay rises above or in line with inflation as the UK is gripped by a recession and the cost of living rises.
Which sectors are striking and why?
Ms Keegan was asked if she sympathised with striking workers like firefighters and nurses, who have said they are using food banks because they can’t afford to eat.
She suggested giving in to their pay demands would make inflation worse and everybody poorer – something unions have disputed.
Eddie Dempsey, assistant general secretary of the RMT transport union, has previously told Sky News there is “no evidence” pay increases will lead to a wage price spiral and accused ministers of being scared of a “shift in class power”.
Ms Keegan said: “Inflation is affecting every single person, not just in this country, actually, in many, many other countries.
“You can’t just spend your way out of inflation. If inflation is high, everybody feels poorer. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Government ‘failing to get a grip’
Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Pat McFadden said the government is “failing to get a grip” on the strikes.
He added: “Even when we don’t have strikes, public services are not working properly, I can scarcely think of a public service in this country that works better after 12 years of Conservative government than what before they came into office.
“That is a damning indictment of their period of stewardship.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised “tough” new laws to limit the impact of strike action, and has not ruled out banning strikes in the emergency services.
But Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite union, told the PM on Wednesday “we are ready industrially and financially” to challenge any new measures.
In a joint letter to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, union heads accused ministers of “ignoring the main issue on the table” that is causing the strikes – public sector pay.
Highlighting “huge” pay cuts public sector workers have suffered, the union leaders warned: “With CPI inflation over 11% and RPI inflation above 14%, frontline workers are facing another massive real-terms hit to their wages.
“Nurses, ambulance staff, teachers and millions of other key workers have already seen their living standards decimated with over a decade of pay cuts and wage freezes.
“Nurses today are earning £5,000 a year less in real terms than they were in 2010 and hospitals and schools are having to set up food banks for staff.
“This cannot go on.”