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British ambulance workers, nurses strike; union leaders call for fresh pay talks



British ambulance workers and nurses launched a strike Monday as union leaders called for a new round of pay talks. Photo by Adam Vaughan/EPA-EFE

British ambulance workers and nurses launched a strike Monday as union leaders called for a new round of pay talks. Photo by Adam Vaughan/EPA-EFE

Feb. 6 (UPI) — British health workers are on strike Monday over low pay and poor working conditions in the latest labor movement as union leaders accuse the Conservative government of dragging its feet to restart negotiations after several weeks of standstill.

Monday is the first time ambulance crews and nurses will walk out on the same day since the widespread protests began in December.

Officials at the National Health Service have been urgently calling for new talks ahead of another round of planned strikes this week by nurses and ambulance workers in many parts of the country.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing in at least one-third of England’s emergency service industry were planning to go on strike Tuesday, followed by a Physios strike on Thursday that was expected to affect about a quarter of services throughout the country. Ambulance staff in half of England’s 10 service regions were also planning to stay home on Friday.

One small ambulance workers union in Wales was planning to take part in demonstrations this week while dozens more strikes were expected next week in Northern Ireland.

Other walkouts are planned throughout February and will last until at least mid-to-late March.

For weeks, strikes by tens of thousands of emergency technicians and other critical public sector employees have hobbled the nation’s most critical industries in an effort to pressure British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to raise federal wages, but his Conservative government has failed to come back for fresh talks since the last meeting in early January, union leaders say.

Ahead of several walkouts by a number of unions this week, Unite union’s general secretary Sharon Graham said the government has been misleading the public about progress and other aspects of the negotiations, in which unions have sought to boost staff and establish better working conditions at the country’s National Health Service.

“There have been no conversations on pay whatsoever with Rishi Sunak or [Health Secretary] Steven Barclay about this dispute in any way, shape, or form,” Graham told Laura Kuenssberg on BBC One’s Sunday. “They dance round their handbag, dance round the edges, but they will not talk about pay. And to me, that is an abdication of responsibility.”

Graham accused Grant Shapps, the British Secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy, of “actually lying” about the number of ambulance workers who would remain on duty during strikes when he suggested poor cooperation between strikers and the nation’s military troops who have been tapped to serve as backup emergency crews during ongoing demonstrations.

“We have seen the situation where the Royal College of Nursing very responsibly before the strikes told the NHS, ‘This is where we are going to be striking,’ and they are able to put the emergency cover in place,” Shapps said. “Unfortunately, we have been seeing a situation with the ambulance unions where they refuse to provide that information. That leaves the army, who are driving the back-ups here, in a very difficult position — a postcode lottery when it comes to having a heart attack or a stroke when there is a strike on.”

Previously, union leaders vowed that regional emergency services would remain intact throughout work stoppages to respond to life-threatening emergencies.

“In 30 years of negotiating, I’ve never seen such an abdication of responsibility in my entire life,” Graham said in the interview, adding that union negotiators were also waiting on Sunak to simply “come to the table.”

“We are trying to sit down with him and do a negotiation,” Graham said. “It’s very difficult to do a negotiation to solve a dispute like this if they won’t even come to the table.”

Strikes by several unions in Wales were averted this week after its government agreed to boost pay by 3% in addition to a 4.75% bump previously given to support staff, and similar action also called off planned strikes in Scotland.

Pat Cullen, who serves as head of the Royal College of Nursing, on Sunday challenged Sunak to present a similar deal in England, saying thousands of lives were being put at risk due to the ongoing walkouts.

“We’ve always said where negotiations happen, we would cancel strikes to allow for our members to be consulted,” she said. “That’s what happened in Wales, that’s what’s been going on in Scotland.

“It’s almost like there’s a strike in the NHS every single day; we’ve got 130,000 vacancies. So, we’re doing our very best to try and solve this dispute …” she said.

NHS Providers Chief Sir Julian Hartley added: “We are all wanting to see the government open talks with unions, particularly given what we’ve seen in other parts of the U.K.”

Sunak’s government has been struggling with growing public discord over deep economic cutbacks that were intended to shore up the nation’s economy amid worldwide inflation and a continuing cost-of-living crisis.

For weeks, both sides have gone back and forth with no end in sight as the government, while acknowledging the impact on health services, was not backing down from its position of being fiscally responsible during hard times.

British ministers have already indicated they would not budge on a previously established 4.75% average pay boost for this year, and called on union leaders to turn their focus to next year’s pay deal. But all 14 health unions in the country agreed to walk away from the offer.

So far, talks between the sides have been highly contentious and no meaningful agreements have emerged.

The talks became even more complicated after the government recently introduced new anti-strike legislation in Parliament that would enforce the upkeep of key public services, expose unions to lawsuits, and allow employers to summarily fire workers who choose to walk off the job.

After the most recent sit-down, Sunak would not commit to a possible deal that might include one-off payments to nurses, while union leaders said they felt Sunak was being unreasonable in his demands for increased productivity in exchange for higher pay.

Throughout the negotiations, the prime minister has emphasized that any pay deal needed to be affordable for the nation.

“We want to have a reasonable, two-way conversation about pay and everything else that is relevant,” Sunak said recently. “People need to get talking, that’s what they’re doing, hopefully we can find a way through this.”

The national rail industry — including more than a dozen train operators — recently cut service across Britain following several weeks of disagreements with the government over low pay and poor working conditions.

That pay dispute was similar to one that emerged in mid-December, when RMT — the country’s biggest rail union — rejected a pay offer from the government while Sunak insisted the government had been fair.

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