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Do Britain’s strikers really deserve a pay rise?

Strikes - Martin Pope/Getty Images
Strikes - Martin Pope/Getty Images

Industrial action is hitting hard this winter, with teachers, postal workers, rail workers and nurses across the country voting for walkouts.

Pay rises have been at the heart of the disputes, as union representatives push to help workers cope with the rising cost of living as inflation has now soared.

Most workers are suffering real term cuts in their pay because of rampant inflation, which remains at a multi-decade high of 11.1pc.

Over the course of the summer, average weekly earnings increased slightly from £614 to £621. But in real terms, average pay dropped 3pc. Experts have warned that family budgets could get tighter still –  real household incomes will shrink by 7pc in the two years to April 2024, according to forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility.

So how do strikers’ pay compare with the national average, and what are their benefits like overall?

Critics of the many public sector strikes have pointed to their generous “gold-plated” pension schemes, which pay a guaranteed income for life that rises with inflation. While public workers typically earn less than their private counterparts, on average they are paid roughly 6pc more once pensions are accounted for, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank.

So do this winter’s strikers deserve a pay rise? The Telegraph breaks down the numbers and the unions' demands.

Nurses

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is set to stage the first-ever national walkout on December 15 and 20 after ministers said demands for a 19pc pay rise were “not affordable”.

The action, which is expected to involve around half of hospitals, could mean that around 30,000 operations are postponed.

The RCN said that despite a pay rise of around £1,400 awarded in the summer, experienced nurses are worse off by 20pc in real terms because of several below-inflation awards since 2010.

Pat Cullen, RCN general secretary, said: “Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time.

“My offer of formal negotiations was declined and, instead, ministers have chosen strike action. They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute.

“Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”

Nurses' pay has dropped 12pc to a median average of £31,676 when compared with last year, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

Lower pay is often compensated with more generous pensions in the public sector, including for nurses. A nurse on the NHS “band five” pay group with four years experience could expect to earn £32,934 – and would have already earned an annual pension income of £610, according to calculations from the wealth manager Quilter. This entitlement increases every year in line with inflation, plus a further 1.5 percentage points.

However, Graham Crossley, of Quilter, noted that many nurses were at risk of stopping their pension contributions due to the rising cost of living.

He said: “The NHS pension is part of healthcare workers total reward and this deferred income provides good value for members. However, we need to be honest that this theoretical additional value for public sector workers only materialises if they can afford to contribute to the scheme.”

Teachers

Schools across Scotland closed on Thursday after a last minute pay offer aimed at halting the first national classroom walkout in years was branded “an insult” by teachers.

The Educational Institute of Scotland has demanded a 10pc increase for all teachers, regardless of their seniority, and has suggested it will refuse to accept a deal that sees those on lower pay receive more generous percentage-terms rises.

The offer made this week on Tuesday would have seen newly qualified teachers receive salaries of £30,039, a rise of almost 7pc. However, many headteachers and their deputies, who earn between £52,350 and £99,609, would have seen pay rises capped at £3,000.

Primary school and nursery teachers earned an average of £35,534 this year, down 7pc compared with 2021. Secondary school teachers earned £39,352, down 5pc on last year.

Meanwhile, the national average salary has increased 5pc to £33,280.

Scottish teachers also benefit from a final salary pension, and an inflation link each year in retirement that will preserve the real value of their income.

A senior teacher in Scotland earning £45,000 would pay £4,680 into their pension before tax relief, which would earn £789 of inflation-proof annual income at retirement, according to estimates from a pensions specialist.

Rail workers

Both the Aslef and RMT unions are demanding pay rises for their members. The National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers is taking strike action on 13, 14, 16 and 17 December, as well as 3, 4, 6 and 7 January.

There will also be an overtime ban across railways from 18 December until 2 January, which means that industrial action will be spread across four weeks.

Rail transport operatives' salaries have been largely flat this year compared with 2021, at close to £50,000, according to wage data published by the Office for National Statistics. Train and tram drivers saw their median salary dip 0.6pc to £58,862, and rail travel assistants posted a modest 3pc increase to £35,506.

Postal workers

Royal Mail workers are striking throughout December, at a time when millions of people will be hoping to use the service to deliver festive gifts and cards.

The Communication Workers Union has already targeted Black Friday weekend, with strikes on Nov 24, 25, 30 and Dec 1. The CWU has asked for a pay rise for its members that “fully addresses the current cost of living”, and is resisting proposals to change working practices and automate the businesses to cut costs.

So far, union chiefs have rejected a new pay deal that would be worth up to a 9pc rise over the next two years.

The CWU has said that the pay dispute is not complicated: “Our members need it, our members deserve it – the company can afford it.”

The Royal Mail’s British operations posted a £219m loss in the six months to September 2022, but its overseas business turned £162m in operating profit.

This year, the median salary for a postal worker has been largely static at £27,593.

Royal Mail once offered new workers access to a final salary pension scheme, but it is now in the process of implementing the first “collective defined contribution” pension in Britain.

In this scheme, which the CWU supports, both the employer and employee contribute to a collective fund. Unlike a defined benefit pension, Royal Mail would not guarantee a salary. Instead, the CDC provides a target pension income and if overall it is under or overfunded, then retirees’ pay can be adjusted – both up and down.