Firefighters are set to join the wave of strikes sweeping the UK, after a ballot by the Fire Brigades Union produced a “decisive” mandate for industrial action over a below-inflation pay deal.
The union said strikes were an “absolute last resort” for its members but that it would set a series of dates for action if the government and employers did not make a “credible offer” to resolve the dispute within 10 days. The ballot passed with 88 per cent of members voting in favour on a 73 per cent turnout after members had rejected a 5 per cent pay offer.
If the action goes ahead, it will be the first nationwide firefighters’ strike over pay since 2003 and will add to the sense of crisis gripping the UK as teachers join nurses and ambulance workers, postal and rail workers and staff from a string of government agencies on the picket lines.
Strikes affecting the majority of schools across England and Wales are set to go ahead on Wednesday after a meeting between teaching unions and education secretary Gillian Keegan ended in impasse.
Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the National Education Union, said on Monday the government had “squandered an opportunity to avoid strike action” and was “unwilling to seriously engage” in discussions over the real terms pay cuts that had caused a staffing crisis.
Keegan after the meeting reiterated an oft-repeated line that “unions do not need to strike to meet with me”, and that “it is clear that strikes are not being used as a last resort”.
NHS unions are also escalating their campaigns, with both nurses and ambulance workers set to strike next Monday — the first time they have acted in concert since beginning walkouts in December. Further action by the Royal College of Nursing, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and ambulance members of the union Unison will punctuate next week.
But while ministers say they are open to continuing talks with unions, there is no sign of any change in the government’s stance, with Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, adamant there will be no new funding for departments to help them improve on the existing 2022-23 pay offers.
Questioned on Monday by health staff in Darlington, where he had been unveiling a plan to tackle the crisis in NHS urgent and emergency care, Sunak ruled out raising taxes to fund a higher pay offer, although he said ministers would “keep at it until we can find a resolution” in pay talks.
He added that “nothing would give me more pleasure than to wave a magic wand and have . . . all of you paid lots more”, but maintained that his administration had protected spending on the NHS and social care “so overall the pie is as big as it’s ever been”.
Within this pie, it was not easy “to figure out what’s the right balance between pay and all these other things we have to do”, he said.