UK public sector workers battle for pay hikes that match inflation

Stephen Beard Apr 25, 2023
Heard on:
Doctors striking for a 35% increase in pay. Mimisse Beard

UK public sector workers battle for pay hikes that match inflation

Stephen Beard Apr 25, 2023
Heard on:
Doctors striking for a 35% increase in pay. Mimisse Beard

The United Kingdom’s worst industrial unrest since the 1980s rumbles on, with more strikes looming in the public sector. Teachers will soon walk off the job for another two-day stoppage in a dispute over pay. They will be followed shortly by nurses. And “junior” doctors — that’s from the newly-qualified through to consultant level — are threatening further action after their recent four-day strike. 

The U.K.’s 10.1% inflation rate — 19% in the case of food — is fueling the unrest, while the U.K.  government is resisting the demands for large pay hikes, insisting that they will only add to the inflationary pressure. As a sign of its resolve, the government is pushing through legislation to restrict the impact of strikes in essential public services, but the workers remain adamant that their pay demands are reasonable and their cause is a just one.   

Dr. Naomi Dunne, who has shoulder-length curly hair and wears an orange shirt, blue jacket and orange beanie, stands in a parking lot and faces the camera with a serious expression on her face.
“Like a lot of my colleagues, I’m struggling,” said Dr. Naomi Dunne. (Mimisse Beard/Marketplace)

“At this point in my career, I should be able comfortably to afford to pay for child care and a mortgage,” said Dr. Naomi Dunne, who works in a hospital in the English Midlands and qualified as a doctor eight years ago.

“But I can’t,” she went on. “I have two small children and I’m in a deficit at the end of most months. Like a lot of my colleagues, I’m struggling.”  

The doctors earn a basic salary before overtime and bonuses of between $37,000 and $78,000 a year. And they want to see a 35% increase, to make up for what they say they’ve lost through inflation over the past decade.

Dr. Michael McArdle has brown hair and a beard. He wears black-framed glasses and an orange vest and looks solemnly at the camera.
“People have been leaving the NHS in their droves,” said Dr. Michael McArdle. (Mimisse Beard/Marketplace)

As a result, according to junior doctor Michael McArdle, there’s been an exodus of medical staff from Britain’s state-run National Health Service, putting intolerable pressure on those that remain.

“Stress and burnout are at an all-time high,“ he said. “Overall, morale within junior doctor cohorts is profoundly bad at the minute. People have been leaving the NHS in their droves.”

The resulting gaps in the workforce have led to overcrowded hospitals and poor healthcare, according to Naomi Dunne.

“At one hospital, I was getting on the back of ambulances to assess patients with hip fractures, and they were then being taken off ambulances to be X-rayed and then put back in an ambulance because there’s nowhere to put them,” she said.

The government maintains that an increase of 35% is unaffordable and could trigger a wage-price spiral. Meanwhile, the most recent doctors’ strike led to the cancellation of almost 200,000 operations and appointments. Hospital bosses warned that strike action could endanger patient safety.

But Naomi Dunne claimed that patient safety is already at risk, and if the strikes are successful, the recruitment and retention of medics will improve, and so will healthcare.

“These gaps in the workforce will be filled and hospitals will be safer for it and patient safety will be better for it,” she said.  

A similar dispute over pay, recruitment and retention has been raging in Britain’s public schools.   

“My pay in real terms has dropped by 20% over the past 10 years,” said Clare Selby, who has worked as a teacher for 16 years. Selby told Marketplace that she works a 60-hour week for around $50,000 per annum and that she’s struggling financially.

Clare Selby has long blonde hair and smiles toward the camera in front of a board that advertises after school club activities.
“The feel-good factor doesn’t seem to be legal tender,” said teacher Clare Selby. (Mimisse Beard/Marketplace)

“With the cost of living going up, the bills going up, the mortgage, energy bills, the cost of food, petrol, everything, I am really, really struggling. I am having to look at selling my house,” she said.

Teachers are demanding a raise that at least matches the current rate of inflation — 10.1%. The government has offered a 4.5% increase this year on top of a 5.4% increase last September, as well as a one-off payment of around $1,200. But in a ballot, two-thirds of the teachers taking part rejected the offer as inadequate.

Selby bridles at the suggestion that since teaching is a vocation, pay should be less important than job satisfaction and that the real reward is the feel-good factor.

“That’s very true. Teaching is a vocation. But unfortunately, I find that when I go to the shops or when I’m paying a bill, the feel-good factor doesn’t seem to be legal tender,” Selby tartly observed.  

But striking as a teacher or doctor can be a complicated prospect. The teachers’ strike, for instance, could mean more, albeit temporary, disruption for the kids’ education which suffered badly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Charlotte Nash stands with her hands in front of her and wears glasses and a black and blue floral dress. She stands in front of a bulletin board displaying student's work and thank you notes.
“It isn’t just about pay,” said striking teacher Charlotte Nash. (Mimisse Beard/Marketplace)

“I do feel guilty. I really do,“ admitted Charlotte Nash a secondary school language teacher with more than 20 years of experience.

“But we’re doing this for the future of education. It isn’t just about pay,” she said. “It’s about recruitment and retention, and about ensuring that any pay hike is funded with fresh government money so that school budgets do not suffer. It’s about making sure our schools are funded properly.”

The government insists that schools are already well provided for and that funding per pupil has increased by 44% since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010. Resisting the teachers’ demands, the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan stated, “we have to manage the economy in a reasonable way. We cannot fuel inflation. We have to halve inflation and that’s what we need to focus on for everybody across the whole economy.”   

Alarmed by the impact of the strikes on essential public services, the government has introduced a bill providing that key workers who fail to maintain a minimum level of service during a strike could be fired. The measure has enraged some of the strikers.

“It makes me extremely angry,” said junior doctor Naomi Dunne. “It’s legislation that is being put in place to stamp down on free speech and people’s right to strike.”

But teacher Charlotte Nash sees the government move as futile and does not regard the threat of dismissal as credible. “Half of the teachers in this school belong to the union,” she said. “If all of us lost our jobs because we had taken strike action, the school would close.”  

Labor market economist Jon Boys of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development believes that while public sector workers have not so far secured the inflation-matching pay awards they have been demanding, they have made some headway.  

“Six months ago there was quite a large gap between public and private sector pay settlements. It wasn’t unusual to have the private sector on 7% growth a year and the public sector on 2%. That gap has narrowed. Now, the public sector is closer to 5%,” he said. “The strikes or the threat of strikes are making the government come to terms with the idea that they cannot get away with 2% anymore, not with inflation of around 10%.” 

It remains to be seen, however, whether a doubling of the rate of growth for public sector pay will have a malign effect on the overall economy and give an upward twist to the U.K.’s already dizzying inflation rate.  

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