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UK Teachers May Go On Strike as Sunak Battles to Contain Unrest

(Bloomberg) -- Teachers may join hundreds of thousands of UK employees taking industrial action as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s administration battles to contain a surge of worker unrest over pay that’s failing to keep pace with the surging inflation.

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The National Education Union is poised to announce the results of a strike ballot at about 5 p.m. on Monday, with General Secretary Mary Bousted confident the vote will meet the minimum threshold required. The union would then have two weeks to notify employers before taking action, giving time for talks. The headteachers’ union will also announce ballot results.

“The biggest issue is that there is a workforce crisis in our schools,” Bousted told Sky News on Monday, urging the government to negotiate on pay. “We want to go in and do serious negotiation, because the last thing my members want to do is take strike action.”

A vote in favor of strikes would pile more pressure onto Sunak, whose administration is already grappling with industrial action by nurses, ambulance drivers and rail workers. A strike by teachers could have knock-on repercussions in the wider workforce, with parents forced to stay at home.

Nurses plan to strike again on Wednesday and Thursday, with ambulance workers planning a walkout next week. O Feb. 1, some 100,000 civil servants have announced plans to join the industrial action. Another 30,000, including 28,400 at His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the tax authority, began balloting for strike action on pay, pensions and job security, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union.

EXPLAINER: Why Strike-Averse Britain Is Gripped by Labor Unrest

Pay Demands

The NEU vote comes after only 42% of members voted in a ballot of another teachers’ union, NASUWT. That meant that although 9 in 10 votes cast were in favor of industrial action in state schools, the vote wasn’t valid. Nevertheless, the union did secure a mandate for strikes at more than 130 private schools.

Teaching unions argue that the 5% pay rise offered to most teachers fails to keep pace with inflation at more than 10%, while saying a 20% cut in real terms over the past decade has led to a staff exodus.

But the Conservative government has taken a hard line on remuneration, saying bigger pay awards risk stoking inflation. Sunak’s administration has also provoked unions by proposing legislation to limit strikes and ensure minimum service levels in key industries.

The controversial bill will return to the House of Commons on Monday amid a clamor of opposition. The Labour Party is opposing the legislation as well as government attempts to fast-track it through Parliament. Leader Keir Starmer has said if it’s passed, he’d repeal the law in government.

‘Full-Frontal Attack’

“This shoddy, unworkable bill won’t do a thing to help working people or avoid strikes,” Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner said in a statement.

Under the proposed law, minimum service levels would be required on strike days for fire, ambulance and rail services, with the government consulting on the adequate level of coverage. Health care, education, nuclear decommissioning, border security and other modes of transport will be subject to voluntary agreements.

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Paul Nowak said in a statement that far from averting strikes, the legislation will only “make matters worse.” He called it a “full-frontal attack on the right to strike” that was proceeding “without proper consultation or scrutiny.”

Some signs of progress have emerged after ministers met unions last week in an attempt to defuse the disputes.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper told the BBC that any pay rise needs to be accompanied by reform to “free up money,” but suggested there’s government flexibility government on the issue of insisting train guards are phased out, leaving services managed only by the train driver.

British Medical Association Chair Philip Banfield, whose union is balloting members over taking action, told Sky News on Sunday that strikes “are not inevitable at all” and that his first meeting with Health Secretary Steve Barclay “was not as negative as I was expecting.”

Barclay last Monday signaled flexibility, saying he’s open to backdating the next pay rise for health workers to cover part of the present fiscal year.

While government officials see a deal on railways closer than one on health care, senior Tories — conscious that nurses benefit from considerable public sympathy — have called on Sunak to make them a more generous pay offer. An Opinium poll at the weekend found that 57% of Britons support the nurses’ strike, with 31% opposing. Net support for industrial action by ambulance workers is +17%, while for railway workers, it’s minus 7%.

--With assistance from Eamon Akil Farhat.

(Updates with fresh Bousted comments in third paragraph, PCS ballot in fifth.)

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