Rishi Sunak faces showdown with unions as UK braces for first national strike in 100 years

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The Prime Minister has summoned union officials to No.10 for crunch talks which could include offering nurses a new pay offer. Ministers will also hold talks to try and resolve the rail workers dispute after a week of disruption to service because of mass walkouts.

The last ditch meetings come amid fears that union barons could be plotting the first general strike since 1926 when they meet at a “war cabinet” later this week.

Some of the country’s top union bosses, including Mick Lynch, will meet at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to plan their next move after weeks of crippling walkouts.

The gathering of the top brass could see Mr Lynch joined by Paul Nowak, the new general secretary of the TUC, head of Aslef Mick Whelan and the GMB’s general secretary Gary Smith.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS who is reported to have called for a general strike in the past, could also be there.

The crunch meetings come during what could be a pivotal week in the ongoing disputes.

Britain is being hit by a wave of strikes including by rail workers, nurses, paramedics, postal workers, border staff and civil servants.

Unions are pushing for significant pay rises this year to avoid real wages suffering a major blow due to inflation which has sky-rocketed into double figures.

Rishi Sunak has summoned union officials to No.10

Rishi Sunak has summoned union officials to No.10 (Image: Getty)

But the Government has so far largely refused their demands, arguing that big pay rises will fuel an inflation spiral and are unaffordable given the dire state of the public finances.

Mr Sunak said he is prepared to discuss nurses’ pay at today’s Downing Street summit which will be attended by the RCN, GMB, Unite, and Unison unions.

The Prime Minister told the BBC he was open to a pay deal that is “responsible” and “affordable”.

Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said she had a “chink of optimism” following Mr Sunak’s remarks.

“The prime minister talked about coming to the table. Now that’s a move for me.”

But she said the talks are “not going to avert the strike action” in England on January 18 and 19 without compromise on 2022/23 pay.

The government has so far only agreed to discuss a settlement for the next financial year.

Nurses are already set to receive a rise for the current year, 2022-23, an average of 4.75 percent.

This is in line with a recommendation by the independent NHS Pay Review Body in July – but the RCN says the figure is not enough to cushion the rising cost of living.

In an interview on the Sunday with Laura Kuensberg programme, Mr Sunak was asked if he would be willing to talk about nurses’ pay for this year.

“The government has always been clear that it’s happy to talk about pay that is responsible, that’s affordable for the country. That’s always been clear,” he said.

“We want to have a reasonable, honest, two-way conversation about pay and everything else that is relevant.”

Last month saw nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland stage a walkout for the first time in the RCN’s 106-year history. The Royal College of Nursing Scotland says it is planning industrial action while the RCN has announced further strike dates in England on 18 and 19 January.

The RCN has said nurses should receive a pay increase of five per cent above inflation this year, which at the peak rate of inflation would have equated to a 19 per cent rise, although reports last week suggested it would accept 10 percent.

Speaking on the same programme, Ms Cullen repeated her call for the prime minister to meet her “halfway”, and said the RCN had made a “significant move” by signalling a willingness to compromise.

RMT workers on the picket line this January

RMT workers on the picket line this January (Image: Getty)

“There was a chink of optimism and there was a little shift in what the prime minister was saying,” she said.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said in a Sunday newspaper article he will take a “constructive approach” to negotiations.

But Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “Rishi Sunak is taking our nurses and ambulance workers for fools. These talks are about next year’s pay settlements and will do nothing to resolve today’s issues.”

It comes as thousands of junior doctors in England start voting today on whether to strike over pay in the latest outbreak of industrial unrest sweeping the country.

Around 45,000 members of the British Medical Association (BMA) are being balloted, with the result due at the end of February.

The BMA has told the Government if there is a yes vote, junior doctors will begin their action with a 72-hour “full walkout” in March.

Professor Phil Banfield, the chairman of the British Medical Association, has said that consultants’ leaders would meet within weeks to discuss a possible ballot for industrial action after years of real-terms cuts in pay and raids on their pensions.

Consultants’ starting salaries are £88,364 a year and after five years these can rise to more than £100,000 with the best-paid earning at least £120,000.

Ahead of today’s talks with rail unions RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said he wants to see the Government “stop play-acting”.

“Passengers, workers and businesses are suffering and even rail company managers are beginning to break ranks in despair at the Government’s approach,” he said.

Meanwhile, Aslef leaders will consider an offer – made on Friday by the Rail Delivery Group on behalf of train operators – of a four percent pay rise for last year and four percent this year.

The wave of strikes continues today (Monday) with workers at the DVLA launching a five-day walkout in a dispute over pay, pensions, and jobs.

Members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) based in Swansea and Birmingham will be taking action.

In a further blow, most state schools across England and Wales will have to close completely on several days in February and March if the country’s biggest teaching union votes for industrial action this week.

The National Education Union (NEU) expects a ballot of its members, which ends on Friday, to approve action that would trigger the biggest shutdown of schools for many years.