Millions of public sector workers are expected to vote this fall on wage strikes in what could be the biggest wave of union action since the 1970s.
The strikes could lead to shortages in hospitals, fire stations, schools and on the transportation network if negotiations over wage increases cannot be resolved.
Unions Say Wage Offers Are Not Keeping Up With Uptrend cost of livingbut the government says it needs to tackle rising inflation and says a wage hike could now push prices up even further.
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In a special report from Sky News, Cost of Living: Wage Wars, we watch as a rift between government and public sector workers risks erupting into large-scale strikes, similar to those seen in the late 1970s, when millions of workers ran away for wages.
At the time, inflation was rising as it is now and unions demanded more wage increases for their members.
But the Labor government, led by James Callaghan, refused.
Strikes broke out during a long and bitterly cold winter; machinists, nurses, truck drivers—even the gravediggers ran away. At the end of 1978 the garbage collectors went on strike and the garbage piled high in the streets.
utilities, a strike threat by trade unions only adds to the challenges for whoever wins in the contest to replace Boris Johnson in a modern take on an ancient dispute.
It comes at a sensitive time for the economy, with both the Treasury and the Bank of England struggling to contain inflation.
Already this summer, rail strikes by members of the The Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union have caused major disruption across the country.
In England and Wales, the majority of teachers have received a 5% pay increase.
In Scotland, supply was two percent – both below inflation.
Unions say this represents a significant cut in real terms in the salaries of most teachers and all school principals, and that salaries have already fallen by 20% in real terms since 2010.
‘Enough is enough – we have no money’
Rachel Badzire, a special needs teacher from Cheshire, says her salary of £35,000 a year is not increasing enough to match the rising cost of living.
The mother of two said: “I don’t spend too much. But I find that where I could spend £30 or £40 I now spend £60.
“I can understand that there is no finite wallet, there never has been, but we can’t just say that one profession is worth more than another. A nurse saves lives, but without teachers, where does that basis come from to help people to develop and get jobs such as nursing.
“I do think that more and more people are saying that it is enough, we have no money.”
But when it comes to going outside, Rachel is undecided.
“When I’m older myself, students would be disturbed by teachers who are not in school. So I think that gives extra weight to my decision-making.
“That said, if I were to be voted for strike action, I would strongly rely on voting for it.”
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‘We must be listened to’
In June, firefighters received an offer of a 2% pay increase, which their union has rejected and described as “completely inadequate”.
They say that between 2009 and last year the real wages of firefighters have been cut by 12%, which amounts to almost £4,000.
Adam Hooks is a full-time firefighter earning £32,244 a year.
“When you get to a point where you can’t pay the bills because inflation is so high, and you don’t even keep up with inflation, I feel like something has to be done.
“I would like to have enough money to not have to worry about things.”
Deciding whether or not to strike is a difficult decision.
“No firefighter wants to go on strike, and many of us live in our community. We do the work because we want to help people. But we have to be paid fairly for it.
“We need to be listened to. There are a lot of firefighters who are struggling with the wages and just trying to pay the bills, let alone having any kind of luxuries or anything like that. They’re just struggling to pay the bills. “
Nurse trades meals for high-calorie shakes
Nurses like Katie Sutton are taking more drastic measures to save money. Katie has started eating high-calorie shakes instead of preparing good meals.
“It works for about £2 per meal,” she said.
“I usually make a shake, and I have 400 calories, and it will keep me going.
“I already have £250 in my overdraft and the cost of everything is just getting too much. I think many nurses will decide there is no option but to strike.
“I’m not sure who will take care of my patients if I take industrial action. It’s something I’ll be considering very hard and if this situation isn’t resolved and we don’t get the raise that we so desperately need then I will go on strike. “
Nurse salaries have fallen by 10% in real terms
Nurse unions had asked for wage increases above inflation for their members. In Scotland, an offer of 5% was made in May.
In July, nurses in England and Wales were told they will receive a raise of at least £1,400, which is about 4% on average for most nurses.
The Royal College of Nursing said this means the value of nurses’ salaries has fallen by 10% in real terms since 2012.
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The government says an increase in public sector wages would cause a spike in demand for goods and services and increase prices.
But the cost of living is not decreasing either.
New forecasts suggest energy bills could rise to more than £4,200 in April, wiping out the £15bn bailout package the government has pledged to help needy families.
How have wages changed over the years?
Sky News’ data and forensics team has looked at how wages have changed over the decade to 2021.
While average wages have risen, many public sector workers are worse off than they were a decade ago because wages have not risen as much as prices.
The real wage – wages adjusted for inflation – is 3.1% lower than in 2012 for primary school teachers and 1.9% lower for secondary school teachers.
Nurses and firefighters appear to be slightly better off than they were a decade ago, but this chart doesn’t tell the full story, as data is only available until 2021.
We have more recent data on how real earnings have changed for the public sector in general.
As this chart shows, the rapid price increases of the past year mean that public sector wages are 4.1% lower in real terms than in 2012.
This has widened the gap between the public and private sectors, where average wages are still 4.3% higher than a decade ago.
Moreover, even the moderate real wage growth of firefighters is meager compared to previous years.
This chart shows how the financial crisis ended decades of consistent wage growth. Between 1988 and 1998, real wages increased by more than a fifth.
While in 2022 we will be poorer than in 2006, because inflation has affected our purchasing power.
Therefore, even professions that have experienced moderate wage growth see nothing compared to what we saw in the decades before the financial crash, when we were used to continuous major improvements in living standards.