Rishi Sunak Set to Hold Union Talks Ahead of Introducing Controversial Anti-Strike Laws

Protests Against Anti-Strike Laws (Photo: Getty Images)

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is set to meet union leaders this week for what he hopes will be “constructive” talks aimed at halting nationwide industrial action, even as his government prepares to introduce controversial anti-strike legislation.

In recent months, tens of thousands of workers across various industries have walked out to demand better working conditions and pay raises that align with inflation, which remains in double digits in the U.K.

In November, U.K. inflation slowed to 10.7% annually from a 41-year high of 11.1% in October. The country’s independent Office for Budget Responsibility projects that British households are set to experience their sharpest fall in living standards on record.

During a visit to a London school on Friday, Sunak told reporters he is seeking a “grown up, honest conversation with union leaders about what is responsible, what is reasonable and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay,”.

His comments followed his government’s announcement of new anti-strike laws aimed at enforcing “minimum service levels” across key public services, including the National Health Service, schools, rail networks, nuclear commissioning, and the fire service.

The legislation, which Sunak’s government plans to introduce in Parliament within the next few weeks, would allow employers to sue unions for disruption and dismiss employees who participate in industrial action.

The full details of the plan may be laid out as soon as Thursday, according to The Times newspaper. However, the initial announcement was met with outrage by union leaders.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which has recently undertaken the first strike action in its 106-year history, called the move “undemocratic,” while the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the entire trade union movement would “fight this pernicious attack on workers by all means available.”

Over the weekend, Sunak softened his stance on the nurses’ strikes, telling that he is open to discussions about a new pay deal that is “responsible” and “affordable,” with further walkouts in NHS workplaces across England scheduled for January 18 and 19.

UK Prime Minister – Rishi Sunak (Photo: Getty Images)

RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen referred to Sunak’s shift as a “chink of optimism” and urged the prime minister to meet her “halfway.”

Talks between the government and union leaders are scheduled for Monday. However, Unite, one of the country’s largest unions representing NHS members including ambulance workers, accused Sunak of “misleading the British public” regarding pay negotiations.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham, in a statement on Sunday, reiterated that no progress on the upcoming 2023/4 NHS pay review could be made while the current 2022 NHS pay claim remains unresolved.

“I have repeatedly called for the prime minister to come to the table on this. All the general secretaries representing NHS workers stand ready to negotiate with him at any time,” Graham said.

“But this meeting on Monday has been misrepresented on almost every level. It is not a negotiation, it is not on current NHS pay and it is not with the prime minister.”

Graham added that unless Sunak “accepts the need to make real progress on the current pay claim, there will still be strikes across the NHS this winter.”

A total of 2,600 Unite ambulance workers are set to strike on January 23, with further action in Wales on January 19.

The NHS is facing an unprecedented crisis, with hospitals full, patients lying in corridors, and ambulances queueing outside emergency departments unable to offload patients or respond to new calls.

Health trusts and ambulance services around the country have declared “critical incidents” in recent weeks as services become overrun.

Sunak held an emergency meeting with health leaders over the weekend and told them that “bold and radical” action would be needed to guide the NHS through the crisis.

National rail networks have also been heavily disrupted by strikes over the past four weeks.

The latest 48-hour walkout by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union resulted in only about one in five trains across Great Britain running on Saturday.

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