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UK Prime Minister Sunak seeks “constructive” talks with unions amid new anti-strike laws

UK Prime Minister Sunak seeks “constructive” talks with unions amid new anti-strike laws

LONDON, January 6: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses the media as he visits Harris Academy in Battersea.

Henry Nicholls – WPA Pool/Getty Images

LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is preparing to meet union leaders this week for “constructive” talks as he seeks to halt nationwide industrial action even as his government prepares controversial anti-strike legislation.

Tens of thousands of workers have marched across sectors in recent months to demand better working conditions and wage increases in line with inflation, which is still in double digits in the UK

UK inflation slowed to 10.7% annually in November from a 41-year high of 11.1% in October, and the country’s independent Office for Household Responsibility is forecasting UK households to experience the sharpest decline in living standards on record will experience.

Sunak told reporters during a visit to a London school on Friday that he is seeking a “mature, candid conversation with union leaders about what is responsible, what is appropriate and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay,” Sunak told Reuters.

His comments came just a day after his government announced new anti-strike legislation to enforce “minimum coverage levels” for essential public services, including the National Health Service, schools, rail networks, nuclear commissioning and the fire service.

The law, which Sunak’s government plans to introduce in parliament in the next few weeks, would allow bosses to sue unions for disruption and sack workers who took part in industrial disputes.

Full details of the plan could be announced as early as Thursday, according to The Times newspaper, but the initial announcement was met with outrage from union leaders.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which in recent weeks carried out the first strike action in its 106-year history, called the move “undemocratic”, while the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said all trade unionism would ” fight this harmful attack on the workers with all available means”.

Over the weekend, Sunak further softened his tone on the nurses’ strikes, telling the BBC he was open to talks about a new pay deal that is “responsible” and “affordable”, with more strikes at NHS jobs across England for January 18 and 19 are planned.

On the same BBC show, RCN Secretary General Pat Cullen called Sunak’s postponement “a spark of optimism” and urged the Prime Minister to meet her “halfway”.

Talks between the government and union leaders are scheduled for Monday but Unite, one of the country’s largest unions which also represents NHS members including ambulance workers, accused Sunak of misleading the British public over pay negotiations.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham reiterated in a statement on Sunday that no progress could be made on the forthcoming NHS salary review (2023/4) as long as the current 2022 NHS salary claim remains unresolved.

“I have repeatedly asked the Prime Minister to come to the table on this. All General Secretaries representing NHS workers are always ready to negotiate with him,” Graham said.

“But that meeting on Monday was misrepresented at almost every level. It’s not a negotiation, it’s not about the current pay of the NHS and it’s not about the Prime Minister.”

Graham added there will still be strikes across the NHS this winter unless Sunak “accepts the need to make real progress on the current wage demand”.

A total of 2,600 Unite ambulance workers are to go on strike on January 23, with further action in Wales on January 19.

The NHS is facing an unprecedented crisis, with hospitals full, patients lying in corridors and ambulances queuing outside emergency departments unable to unload patients or respond to new calls. Health foundations and emergency services across the country have been reporting “critical incidents” in recent weeks as services are stretched.

Sunak held an emergency meeting with health leaders over the weekend, telling them “bold and radical” action was needed to get the NHS through the crisis.

National rail networks have also been badly hit by strikes over the past four weeks, with the latest 48-hour strike by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union resulting in just around one in five trains running across the UK on Saturday.

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