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15 December 2022

The biggest myths about this week’s strikes in the UK

Starting and average salaries for public sector workers taking industrial action are lower than most people think.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Every time workers threaten to go on strike in the UK, a little ritual ensues. The average wage of the sector in question is googled (just look at how searches for “rail salary” and “train driver salary” spiked when the rail strikes began in June). The googler in question – possibly based on how this compares with their own income, whether strikes inconvenience them personally, plus a dash of “could I do that job myself?” – then decides whether or not the industrial action is justified.

This psychological process, in addition to how government ministers frame trade union leaders, all serves to shape public sentiment towards strikes.

People in the UK think the average salary is lower than it is

One of the biggest and most basic public misconceptions in relation to strikes is about average salaries. The average annual pay in the UK is £33,000. But we, as the British public, tend to assume it’s actually lower. When the New Statesman asked British voters what they thought the average salary was, we found a third of them pegged it to £20,001-£30,000 – the most chosen salary bracket in the poll.

This may sound like a minor underestimation, but it means we therefore assume certain workers are better paid (or paid closer to the average) than they actually are.

The starting and average salaries of striking workers are lower than you think

Here are the starting or average salaries of the main workers taking industrial action in December:

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Paramedic: £27,055 (starting salary)
Nurse: £27,055 (starting salary)
Rail worker: £33,000 is the RMT rail union’s average, whereas £39,518 is the average salary of a range of different rail jobs according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – this excludes cleaners, who would drag it down
Bus driver: £18,000 (starting salary, according to the government’s own career site)
Border Force officer: £21,431 (starting salary, according to the government’s own career site)
Royal Mail worker: £16,000 (starting salary for a postperson, according to the government’s own career site).

Many workers have had their pay cut

These disputes have been triggered by inflation (currently 11.1 per cent) – as the cost of goods and services has surged, workers have become poorer because their wages haven’t kept up. Household disposable income is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility to fall by 7 per cent over the next two years – the biggest drop since records began in 1956-57.

Many public sector workers have endured pay cuts and reduced living standards for years. From 2010 onwards, the government implemented public sector pay freezes and caps, which meant wages for most workers did not rise with inflation. As a result, some nurses’ salaries have decreased by 20 per cent in real terms over the past 12 years. This figure puts their demand for a pay rise of 5 per cent above retail price inflation (a measure of inflation that includes housing costs) into context.

No, public sector pay rises won’t fuel inflation

One of the main arguments against inflation-level pay rises for workers is that they would cause inflation to rise, through what is described as a “wage-price spiral”. Yet this is a misleading phrase. In reality, the inflation we are currently experiencing has nothing to do with rising pay – in fact, it follows a long period of wage stagnation.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is gambling on Christmas disruption turning voters against the strikes]

The argument is that if employers are paying out more in wages then they will have to charge customers more, causing prices to rise. While this may be true of private companies, the public sector cannot increase its costs on consumers to make up for the higher wages it is paying. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) notes, “Higher wages for teachers would not increase the ‘price’ of schooling facing households with children, nor would higher pay for midwives increase the ‘price’ of giving birth in an NHS hospital.”

As public sector pay is currently rising far slower than private sector pay, there is also no risk of it setting a benchmark for industries that could cause prices to rise if they had to fund higher pay settlements. According to the ONS, public sector workers’ wages rose by 2.2 per cent in July to September compared with a 6.6 per cent rise for their private sector counterparts.

Another common contention is that if people have more money, they will spend more, fuelling economic demand and leading to a spike in prices. Yet this is not a reason to go against pay rises. A rise in demand from lower-paid workers could be offset by tax rises elsewhere, such as on wealthier citizens, for example.

If given a pay rise, striking workers would likely spend most of their extra pay on essentials, such as food and energy, the prices of which are at the whims of global markets. When Rishi Sunak made the same argument as chancellor – that putting benefits up with inflation would add to inflation – I was told by one Bank of England economist at the time that this was “bollocks”.

Yes, the government can afford to pay striking workers more

Another reason the government gives in favour of not meeting the unions’ demands is that it simply cannot afford to. This is disingenuous. The UK has the second-lowest debt-to-GDP of any G7 country, and the idea it has to “balance the books” is simply one ideological view of how to run the public finances – the government could instead prioritise public services and borrow to invest (at present, the NHS crisis is a significant drag on growth as it is linked to a surge in long-term sickness of 2.5 million people). 

No, it wouldn’t cost each UK household £1,000

Sunak has claimed that meeting public sector pay demands would cost each UK household £1,000 extra a year. This is based on some questionable government arithmetic that suggests an inflation-linked pay rise for all public sector staff would cost £28bn (and then divides this total by the number of households). The IFS found that the total cost would actually be £17.9bn. The government’s figures don’t take into account the number of households that would benefit from higher pay. It is also this government that has raised taxes since the pandemic by £2,300 per household, partly to compensate for the economic cataclysm that was Liz Truss’s premiership. 

The disputes aren’t just about pay anyway

Striking workers don’t just want a pay rise. The disputes also relate to working conditions, job security and safety. For example, the head of the RMT rail workers’ union, Mick Lynch, has warned of potential job cuts that could compromise passenger safety. Similarly, the head of the Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, said the nurses’ strike is about patient safety and the future of the NHS, as well as pay.

So when politicians accuse unions of working against ordinary people’s interests, they ignore that these strikes are also about protecting the public and the services it relies on.

Read more on strikes:

Is Mick Lynch in trouble?

Does the wave of strikes mark the end of the long 1990s?

Rishi Sunak has been left looking complacent on strikes

The biggest myths about this week’s strikes in the UK

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