For those of us who remember the 1970s, the past couple of years have had an eerily familiar, almost nostalgic ring to them.
The waves of industrial action across the health service, the railways, education and the postal services may not yet have reached the level seen then – when, famously, refuse piled up in the streets and the dead were left unburied.
But research from the Resolution Foundation suggests we are not far off this. The independent think tank’s latest Labour Market Outlook, published today (Monday), finds that 3.9 million working days have been lost to strikes over the past year, more than at any point since the 1980s.
The industrial action has been largely fuelled by the fact that average pay to highly unionised public sector workers has fallen, in real terms and taking account of inflation, by more than 9% since 2021, Resolution’s analysis has found.
This means those public sector workers are falling way behind their colleagues in the private sector. Meanwhile, the places where they work are faced with a growing number of job vacancies, as discouraged employees leave.
Resolution has a robustly market-based solution to this problem. Do as employers in the private sector do when faced with a shortage of staff. Pay them more.
The research finds that industrial action has been concentrated on sectors that are heavily unionised, where industrial action is easier to co-ordinate, mainly in the public sector, in health, education and public administration, or industries such as the postal services and rail which used to be part of the public sector.
These industries, which are either entirely or partly publicly funded, account for 69% of total union membership in the UK and were responsible for 96% of all days lost to strike action since 2021.
The data from Resolution shows that while resurgent inflation meant that average weekly pay for all workers was down by 4.1% in real terms in the three months to May this year as against two years previously, the gap between the public and private sectors has widened sharply.
For public sector workers, real pay fell by 9.2% over that period. Their private sector colleagues saw a decline of just 2.9%.
The strikes are not just about pay, the Resolution report warns. There is also evidence of poorer working conditions and growing rates of exhaustion and stress.
All this is driving a higher rate of vacancies in those mainly public sector industries of health, education and administration than elsewhere, as disaffected staff drift off and are not replaced. Vacancies in those industries were running 33% higher in March this year than in December 2019, Resolution says, against a rise of 23% across the rest of the economy.
View from the east
The report does not provide a regional breakdown. But, coincidentally, a survey from Ipswich Labour party provides some indication of the problems caused by that jobs shortage in healthcare and other pressures on the NHS.
Across the UK, more people are on NHS waiting lists than ever, with more than 7.5 million awaiting treatment, Labour says. Based on NHS data, the number waiting at East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust has rocketed since 2012. The total now stands at 87,206, an increase of more than 70,000 over that period.
Waiting lists at other NHS Trusts in the area show a similar marked increase, says Labour, and this cannot be blamed on the pandemic, as across the country waiting lists were already 66% higher in March 2020, the date of the first lockdown, than in 2012.
Jack Abbott, the party’s prospective candidate for Ipswich, says: “Waiting lists in Suffolk and Essex continue to soar, and that means patients are left waiting for care in pain and fear for months, or even years.”
“You can replace a body, but it takes years to gain the knowledge.”
It is not hard to find public sector workers also concerned at the shortage of staff, and the effect on those waiting lists. One NHS worker, who preferred to remain anonymous, said:
“I am seeing far too many highly experienced emergency medicine nurses leaving A&E, and this really concerns me. You can replace a body, but it takes years to gain the knowledge and confidence that is needed in an emergency situation.”
The only solution is better conditions and pay that will bring people back into the NHS, the operative believes.
“Unless these brilliant practitioners are paid their worth this exodus of experience will sadly continue. Their skills are highly valued in so many other areas such as 111, the ambulance service and the private sector. The exact same applies to our doctors.”
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The education sector is no better. Rebecca Leek, Executive Director of the Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association, sees what she describes as an ominous black hole on the horizon. Experienced teachers in particular are suffering from erosion of real terms pay and are leaving the profession. “Bursary incentives,” she says “are often ineffective in recruiting teachers who go on to remain in the classroom long term. Most critical of all, there is an ever-expanding burden on schools whereby we have stepped up to be the first line of support for struggling families; we have become the fourth emergency service and, on tighter and tighter budgets, this is unsustainable.”
Public sector pay needs to catch up
The Resolution study suggests that the recent strike action by teachers and junior doctors is a consequence of falling public sector pay, in real terms, over the past few years, as well as stress and more difficult workplace conditions reported by workers in those sectors.
Nye Cominetti, senior economist at the think tank, says: “The Government will need to balance fiscal caution with the need to provide a level of pay for public sector workers that reflects the very real difficulties faced by workers in these sectors and ensures that vacancies in these sectors continue to be filled.”
The widening gap between pay in the public and private sectors, and the sharper deterioration in salaries in real terms paid to health, education and other public sector workers, suggest that business has already learnt this lesson and is paying more to attract key staff. The question raised by Resolution is: will the Government be forced to do the same?