Summer of solidarity as more public sector workers consider strike action

Government told it must do more to soothe 'cost of living crisis'

Saturday, 25th June — By Charlotte Chambers

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Leader of Islington Council Kaya Comer-Schwartz at last week’s TUC march

PUBLIC sector workers had message of solidarity for striking rail staff this week amid warnings that everybody would be demanding a deal in response to soaring inflation and cranked up energy bills.

Frontline workers who were hailed as heroes during the Covid pandemic are calling for pay increases with a wave of industrial action being considered over the next six months. A third day of strikes on the railways is expected to take place tomorrow (Saturday) following walk-outs on Tuesday and Thursday.

The action came just days after the Trades Union Congress organised a defiant march through the streets of central London on Saturday demanding a response to the ‘cost of living’ crisis.

While there were orders from Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, not to attend picket lines this week, Islington Council leader Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz led the Islington Labour Party’s delegation at the TUC march – one of only a few London local authority leaders to do so.

“Do I think Labour could have had a stronger stance [to the strikes]? Yes I do,” she added. “For me it’s about the Tories on every front challenging the livelihood of workers and we need to stand by our unions in making sure the government hears really loudly that we deserve better. Every public sector worker deserves better.”

Postal workers, legal aid lawyers, schools and hospital workers could all ballot for industrial action in the coming weeks.

Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and Finsbury, this week said she was supportive of Mr Starmer’s hands-off approach on the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT)’s action. The RMT is not affiliated to the Labour Party, like several other unions. “We’re not muddled,” said Ms Thornberry on ITV’s Peston.

“We’re saying we’re not injecting ourselves into the middle of this dispute – this is a dispute between railway workers, railway companies and the government – and we’re not in the middle of this. What we’re tying to do is trying to stop the government standing on the edge and throwing gasoline into it.”

The Greens, who hold three seats in Islington’s council chamber, said they had full solidarity with the strike action.

Councillor Caroline Russell, their leader and also a London Assembly member, said: “I absolutely understand why workers are streaming to stand up for being paid properly. “It may be a bit inconvenient for some Londoners but actually this is a fundamental thing people have got to be able to pay their bills, pay their rent and put food on the table. That’s why workers use that right to properly strike if a deal can’t be forged.”

She added: “It’s necessary for people to strike when the people who are being negotiated with are not getting on and doing a proper negotiation. The strike is an indication that.”

RMT leader Mick Lynch has accused the government of “pulling the strings” behind a deal to offer workers a conditional 3 per cent rise if they accept a raft of redundancies, extended working hours and lower pay when they are rehired.

They are calling for a pay rise which helps workers deal with inflation rates currently at around 10 per cent. Tube stations across Islington were closed on Tuesday too, as London Underground workers took industrial acton, Tony Buttifint, secretary of the Islington branch of the National Education Union, said that his branch had already written to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi on Wednesday warning him that unless teachers are given a “fully-funded, inflation-plus pay rise,” teachers will be balloted over possible strike action in the autumn.

The government is expected to announce teacher pay rates on the first day of the school summer holidays.

“Teachers have seen a massive fall in their living standards along with trade workers and other people in the public sector and it’s not sustainable for people to continue at that level of cuts being put upon them,” said Mr Buttifint, adding that teachers had seen a pay cut of 20 per cent since 2010 – a fifth of their salaries – due to the rising cost of living not being matched by what was in their pockets at the end of each month.

“Teachers made huge sacrifices during the pandemic – but we’ve sat and watched as friends of the government get richer and richer,” he added.  “Like in 2008, it seems like working people in this country are being made to bail out the behaviour of those in authority.”

He rubbished the idea that current strikes were harking back to the 1970s and 1980s and said that trade unions are now heavily regulated and teachers can only strike if more than half of all NEU members vote for a walkout.  Barristers specialising in criminal law, who are often low paid, have voted to go on strike for four weeks.

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