Members of the PCS public service union have voted to back national strike action over a 2 per cent pay offer at a time when inflation is running at almost five times that rate.
With around 200,000 members, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is the largest civil service union, representing workers in venues like benefit and tax offices.
The strike vote came as Boris Johnson signaled that workers across the public sector can expect below-inflation in this summer’s pay round.
The prime minister warned at cabinet that allowing wages to keep up with prices, currently rising at 9 per cent annually, would risk an “inflationary spiral” pushing up the cost of mortgages and other essentials.
And he made it clear that ministers are ready to overrule generous recommendations from pay review bodies for groups like police and teachers in the coming months.
Delegates to the PCS conference in Brighton agreed to hold a statutory industrial action ballot over pay and pensions in September.
Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, said: “The sheer size of this vote shows the very real anxiety and anger our members feel at the way they have been treated by this government.
“To vote for strike action is a massive step, but the actions of the government have left us with no alternative.”
Earlier, Mr Serwotka told the conference that public sector workers who kept the country running during the Covid pandemic were now being chided by ministers for working from home and threatened with 90,000 job losses.
“Throughout the pandemic our members worked hard providing critical frontline services,” he said.
Despite our hard work, the government attacked us. They came for our integrity, accusing us of being lazy because we worked from home.
“Let me tell you: unlike the prime minister, we weren’t being distracted by cheese. We kept the country running, providing universal credit to almost 10 million people, furlough to almost 6 million people, keeping our borders open, keeping the roads safe.
“Then government came for our pensions but still we carried on working, doing our bit, making people’s lives easier.
“Then the government came for our dignity, Jacob Rees-Mogg sticking Post-it notes on computers, demanding we returned to desks which, subsequently it transpired weren’t there. But still we carried on working, getting on with our jobs.
“But then they came for our jobs. They announced plans to close 42 Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] offices, ten Insolvency Service offices and, just ten days ago, told us one in five civil servant’s jobs would go.
“They didn’t listen to us when we carried on working, so maybe now it’s time for us to stop working. It’s time to tell this rotten government: ‘Enough is enough’.”
Recommendations on pay rises for groups like police, teachers and NHS workers are expected from independent pay bodies before the summer.
But they can be overruled by ministers in relevant departments, who are facing the prospect of hikes of 9 per cent or more if pay is to keep pace with inflation.
Addressing the regular weekly meeting of cabinet in 10 Downing Street, Mr Johnson backed a warning from Treasury minister Simon Clarke that awards of this size would risk fueling inflation further.
The PM’s official spokesperson refused to say whether ministers will act to rein in recommended rises which are perceived to be too large.
But he said: “The government has already pledged to increase public sector spending and is awaiting decisions by public sector review bodies.
“However ministers made clear the risk of triggering higher inflation must be part of considerations when deciding to pay awards this year.”
The spokesperson did not rule out ministers overriding the decisions of the review bodies.
“That wasn’t the suggestion the prime minister said and I don’t want to jump ahead of the independent process,” said the spokesperson. “You’ll know the government has the capability to do that in the purely hypothetical sense.
“The point that ministers were emphasizing is that a spiraling inflation will do more to damage people’s take-home pay than limited pay restraint.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.