5 Common Myths Around Striking Public Sector Workers, Debunked

No, giving all public sector workers a pay rise would not cost £28 billion.
A teacher holds a placard while taking part in a protest organised NEU and other affiliated trade unions in Saint Peter's square, in Manchester, on February 1, 2023 as part of a national strike day
A teacher holds a placard while taking part in a protest organised NEU and other affiliated trade unions in Saint Peter's square, in Manchester, on February 1, 2023 as part of a national strike day
OLI SCARFF via Getty Images

With thousands of public sector workers striking together this week, it’s pretty clear that the tensions between the government and unions are only going to keep spiralling.

With transport, education and health workers, along with government department employees (and plenty more) all calling for improved wages and working conditions, it’s important to get the facts straight.

So here are five common myths around those striking, unpacked.

1. The ‘wage-price spiral’

One of the primary excuses the government has used to explain why it does not want to award anyone in the public sector with a pay rise equal to or greater than inflation, is out of fear it would only make all prices rise, thus worsening inflation.

This is known as the “wage-price spiral”. Back in the 1970s, the government used this phrase as a threat to suggest that raising salaries would only worsen the double-digit inflation.

As the theory goes, higher wages will trickle down, leading to higher costs for the consumer, and more inflation – a vicious cycle.

But, the International Monetary Fund shared a paper in November which found only a small minority of “wage-price spiral” episodes were “followed by sustained acceleration in wages and prices”.

It claimed: “Inflation and nominal wage growth tended to stabilise, leaving real wage growth broadly unchanged.”

In fact, the IMF even suggested that “falling real wages and tightening labour markets” are usually followed by declining inflation and nominal wage growth.

“We conclude that an acceleration of nominal wages should not necessarily be seen as a sign that a wage-price spiral is taking hold.”

After years of austerity, public sector workers have also experienced significant real-terms pay cuts, stretching wages even further while the government digs its heels in.

It’s worth noting that inflation is starting to fall too, and may have peaked at 11.1% in October.

The current inflation rate is at 10.5%.
The current inflation rate is at 10.5%.
PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

2. How much pay rises would actually cost

The government’s claim that the public sector pay increase would cost £28 billion does not tell the whole picture either.

Health secretary Steve Barclay claimed in December: “If everyone in the public sector had a pay rise in line with inflation, it would cost an extra £28 billion, an extra £1,000 per household.”

This has been heavily disputed. The UK Statistics Authority also pointed out that this includes a “number of judgements and assumptions that others might wish to debate”.

Independent fact-checking charity Full Fact said that the £28 billion figure did not: “This is the difference between the expected wage bill this year and if it was increased by 11%.

“There are questions about how useful a calculation this is, but regardless, the cost would be lower than £28 billion because some of this would come back via taxation on salaries.”

3. Labour’s relationship with unions

The government has regularly tried to portray the Labour Party as in the pocket of the unions.

On Wednesday, prime minister Rishi Sunak said Labour’s Keir Starmer was trying to side with “extremist protesters and union bosses”.

However, Starmer has discouraged Labour MPs from joining the picket line in the past, and has repeatedly refused to back them.

Yet, the political party is still associated with 11 trade unions.

This includes ASLEF (for railway drivers, operational supervisors and staff), Community (a union for workers in all industries and sectors), CWU (post and telecommunications) and general union, GMB.

USDAW, for retail, distributive and related industries, Unite for general workers in private and public sectors, Unison, the public service union, TSSA transport union, NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) and the Musicians Union are all affiliated too.

RMT union, which triggered the national strike action in June, has donated to some Labour MPs in recent years, but the group does not sit on Labour’s National Executive Committee and therefore can’t influence policy decisions at this levels.

Meanwhile, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting did tweet there were “no strikes in the NHS” during Labour’s last government, although that is not correct.

At least two formal local strikes and one unofficial local strike involving staff at NHS hospitals took place, even if they were directly employed by the NHS. But, there was no nationwide strike action during this time, according to Full Fact, as there was on February 1, 2023.

4. What average workers’ salaries are now

There’s been plenty of confusion around what those striking are actually being paid, as the public weigh up whether the industrial action is reasonable.

Sometimes, figures which are much higher than the average salary are circulating.

For instance, the average salary of workers involved in the RMT national rail strike is actually £31,000 – not £44,000, as claimed by then-transport secretary Grant Shapps in June 2022.

Royal Mail postal workers usually start at a salary of £16,000 (as apprentices) before going on to earn around £25,000 with more experience.

Headteachers earn around £74,100, newly qualified teachers earn approximately £28,000 and teaching assistants £17,747.

In the health profession, newly qualified nurses start at £27,000 according to Total Jobs, while the BMJ says a junior doctor (a cohort who are considering striking) earns £29,384 in England just after graduating.

Newly qualified firefighters: £24,191, according to career advisers Prospects.

For comparison, the national average wage for 2022 was at £24,600, according to HMRC and the Office for National Statistics.

5. Anti-strike legislation

The government wants minimum service installed through its new legislation, even on strike days.

But, in reality, that’s what most of the strikers want too.

As many in the medical world have pointed out, staff shortages are actually *part* of the reason so many people are striking.

A report from King’s Fund and Engage Britain noted out in November, “there has been no decades since the 1940s in which finding more staff has not been a pressing priority” since the NHS was set up.

In September 2022, there was a vacancy rate of almost 12% among nurses, up from 10% in May last year.

Similarly, in September there was a more than 7% vacancy rate among doctors – an increase from the less than 6% rate seen in May 2022.


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