Why we are ready to strike: a panel of public sector workers respond

Since I started working more than 10 years ago, I’ve seen recruitment freezes, pay freezes, cutbacks and redundancies, but I’ve never seen a proper pay rise.

It’s hard for my generation to see ourselves as working towards a better future, a house, kids, when our take-home pay covers less each year.

Many of my colleagues, those employed in the roles so important to keeping society running, and the dedicated and talented people I know in museums and galleries, are working on temporary or precarious contracts for minimum wage.

Most people living in poverty are in work and it’s the government that’s allowing that to happen. Work isn’t paying, and not just for people working in hospitality on zero-hours contracts, but for people working for the government in civil service jobs, many of whom are forced by low wages to claim benefits and use food banks.

The government should be employing people with exemplary contracts and decent pay to show other employers how things ought to be done.

PCS union members are dedicated to our work, but we can’t stand idly by while our pensions are stolen, our pay stagnates and our burden grows. That’s why I’ll be balloting for strike action.

Junior doctors know they face many challenges and hurdles – they know from the minute they leave medical school, often with substantial student debt, and begin their training across numerous disciplines and different hospitals. But no doctor was prepared for the past two years. Like everyone in healthcare, junior doctors have had to dig deep into both their physical and emotional reserves, while also making sacrifices with their training and personal lives.

Two years of pandemic have taken their toll. And between 2008-09 and 2020-21, the estimated take-home pay for the average junior doctor in England declined by 22.4% in real terms, with these losses accelerating now as inflation continues to rise. A junior doctor is not worth a quarter less today than they were 13 years ago.

The BMA is therefore calling on the government to commit to full restoration of pay to levels equivalent to 2008-09 adjusted for inflation by the end of this year. If the demand to restore pay is not met, the BMA will begin preparations for a ballot of junior doctors in England for industrial action by early 2023 at the latest. Junior doctors are exhausted, fed up, and evidence shows that up to a third are suffering from burnout.

There is a worldwide shortage of doctors: disillusioned junior doctors will leave the NHS altogether, taking up better paid roles with better working conditions abroad. Junior doctors train here and want to work here, but the NHS is buckling under a workforce crisis, which the actions of the government are only making worse.

My working week started with sifting through 650 pages of evidence until 11pm on Sunday. I left home on Monday at 6am for a plea and trial preparation morning hearing. The prison van didn’t arrive at court until 12.30pm. For Monday and Sunday’s preparation, the government-set fee is £91 (+VAT) – which has hardly shifted in two decades, the equivalent of £5 an hour that will not be paid for months.

I feel privileged to serve the public as a criminal barrister, alongside likeminded talented court staff, judges, solicitors and clerks. But with current pay rates it is sadly no surprise that a quarter of specialist criminal barristers have left in just five years, and most won’t return.

Along with all criminal lawyers, I am not workshy, nor do I opt for industrial action lightly. Too often I will work until 2am, sifting disclosure of evidence that can, for example, mean that cross-examination in court of a vulnerable witness is unnecessary. At the criminal bar, we work these hours to ensure trials stay on track and all parties have a fair trial – defendants, witnesses and importantly victims of crime.

I want to keep diversity in our profession – of political views, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. It is irrelevant that my father was a taxi driver and my mother works on a supermarket checkout. But this is starting to become an unsustainable profession, reversing fast a generation of advancements on diversity. We are all the poorer if there is no one left to prosecute or defend.

The past 12 years have been a disaster for the teaching profession in England. I’m talking about increased class sizes with fewer resources to deliver a narrowing curriculum. Then there’s the government’s obsession with structural change in schools – such as the push for academisation – without focusing resources on what actually happens in classrooms, where the real difference is going to be made.

Our pay and pensions over this period have been thoroughly eroded. The slump in teachers’ pay has been 20%, and we’re paying in more for less to our pensions. That means we’re not even talking about a pay rise, if you think about it: in relative terms, we’re talking about our pay being restored to what it was.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching and I always have. But these are the reasons the profession, which I’ve been in for 33 years, is in such disarray. Many of our younger colleagues are sitting and scratching their heads and thinking, “Why did I get into this?” They’re leaving because they can see it’s unsustainable.

Industrial action often gets portrayed negatively in the press, but my question is: what are we meant to do instead? We put in pay awards into the school teachers’ pay review body every year, but they themselves are straitjacketed because they get a cost envelope from the government. The union I’m in has only done one day of national action in the past 12 years, in 2011 – we tend to act more on a school-by-school basis. Striking for any teacher is absolutely the last resort, but we’ve been backed into a corner.

There are several reasons why I will be voting yes on my ballot paper. I’m a ticket office worker for LNER in Wakefield and I fear for my job as we know the government wants to close ticket offices. I don’t want to lose my job, I can’t afford to, so I’m voting for no compulsory redundancies.

The government keeps spinning that rail workers are on £44,000, but some of my colleagues are on just above the national minimum wage, so I’m voting for a pay rise and for no changes to our conditions.

The most important reason for me to put a yes on my ballot paper is the proposed loss of maintenance staff within Network Rail. Believe me, this loss will be the downfall of our railway. I should know, I nearly died in the Hatfield crash.

On 17 October 2000, I was having a normal day working as a host, then my life changed. The train I was working on went over a damaged line at more than 100mph and it shattered beneath us, hurling everyone everywhere. As the train split, I was flung around like a rag doll, desperately trying to find something to hold on to. I’ll never forget those terrifying minutes.

Four people died needlessly that day because proper maintenance had not been carried out.

So, Mr Grant Shapps, this is not just about our pay. This is also about a safe working environment for our members and a safe journey for all people who use our transport systems.

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