Trade unions meet with government ministers to discuss wages

Trade unions are meeting with government ministers to discuss wages, although the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) estimates that strikes are less than 50% likely to be called off.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay is meeting union leaders, including the RCN, on Monday morning amid cautious optimism that the government might soften its stance on pay.

Teachers’ unions will take part in talks with education secretary Gillian Keegan before announcing this week whether their members will go on strike.

And Rail Minister Huw Merriman is also holding talks with train workers on Monday after the lengthy operation of paralyzed services, with only one in five trains running from Tuesday to Saturday.

INDUSTRY Strikes

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak raised hopes over the weekend by saying he was ready to discuss pay with health workers, though it is understandable that officials want to limit talks to the next round of pay deals.

Unions have said this year’s wage increases must be renegotiated if strikes planned for later this month are to be averted.

Writing on the ConservativeHome website on Monday, the prime minister said: “Today, ministers from across the government will meet with trade unions to determine how we can resolve these disputes in a responsible and reasonable manner.

“I accept the freedom of individuals to strike, but this has to be balanced with everyone else’s right to live safely.

“That’s why we have introduced new regulations – as we have done in countries such as France, Italy and Spain – to ensure a minimum level of safety in critical areas such as our ambulance and fire departments.”

Meanwhile, Mr Barclay, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, said he was “ready to work with unions on what the government can do to support the workforce and I look forward to talking to them about how we are making wage settlement through an independent wage body more accessible where there are opportunities for productivity and efficiency.

Patricia Marquis, the RCN’s England director, said on Monday it seemed “unlikely” that nurses’ strikes scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday next week would be cancelled.

She told Sky News: “It seems unlikely at the moment but we’ll see what today brings in talks with Steve Barclay.

“If there are sparks of hope, if there are more meetings, my colleagues and I will remain optimistic that we can get a solution without having nurses back on picket lines later this month.”

When asked if there wasn’t even a 50-50 chance at the moment, she said: “I don’t think it’s 50-50, but there’s some hope and we’re keeping that hope going.”

She previously said RCN was “willing to compromise” on pay and “we asked them to meet us halfway”, adding: “The exact details of what that would look like obviously have to take place in a locked room.” as part of the negotiations.”

But she said: “If we are unable to talk about this year’s wage award, it will unfortunately not resolve the dispute we currently have with the government.”

Mr Barclay suggested a deal could be made in return for performance, but Ms Marquis said she felt “very, very worried”.

She said: “This shows the level of misunderstanding the situation the NHS and nursing is in right now.

“There are not enough staff to provide the care that needs to be provided and the NHS is underfunded.

“Of course, you can always get some improvements, but it really looks like they are trying to get … the NHS to fund its own prize money and we don’t think that’s possible. We really think it needs to be extra money that is clearly for nursing pay.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told BBC Breakfast that RCN chief executive Pat Cullen is a “tough negotiator” who “stands up for his members and I think he really speaks for nurses and represents the opinion of nurses.”

He added: “She actually offered to call off the nurses’ strike before Christmas if the government sits down and negotiates pay.

“He is now proposing a halfway meeting with the government. Surely this is a good starting point for serious pay talks?

He added: “She showed a certain degree of reasonableness in the face of the government’s unreasonableness.”

Elsewhere, Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said that “the crisis and disaster of the workforce shortage in our schools is hurting children every day.”

INDUSTRY Strikes

(PA graphic)

Ms Bousted, who said she was “very pleased” to meet Ms Keegan on Monday, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If the government is serious it needs to do two things – it needs to put more money on the table now and a one-off payment may seem superficially attractive, but it brings with it all sorts of problems.

“We want a wage increase that will be properly integrated into wages.

“Secondly, they must commit to appropriate negotiations because this is not just a cost of living crisis, although it is a crisis.

“This is a crisis that has been building for 12 years as we have seen teachers leave our schools and children left without the specialist teachers they need to reach their full potential.”

She added: “If we take strike action, we will say as a last resort that this cannot continue.”

Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said the pay talks were a “huge step forward” and the union was “hoping” the dispute would be resolved.

Speaking outside the Department of Health and Social Care ahead of her meeting with Mr Barclay, she said: “Right now, walking into a room and talking about pay is a big step forward. So let’s see what happens today – we travel in hope.

“We will exhaust every possible opportunity to resolve this dispute.”

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