Workers face “two decades of lost pay” and have been “left with no choice” but to go on strike, Paul Nowak, the new head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), has said in one of his first interviews.
Speaking to the New Statesman, Nowak, the incoming general-secretary of the umbrella group and its current deputy, said ministers were “sabotaging efforts to reach settlements”. He called Steve Barclay, the health secretary, “reprehensible” for heaping blame on striking paramedics.
Nurses, ambulance workers, border staff and rail workers are among those planning to stage further strikes as part of the biggest wave of industrial action since 1989. The strike ballot results of teachers and firefighters are expected in mid-January and early February.
Nowak, 50, a former call centre worker from Merseyside will succeed Frances O’Grady, who has been general-secretary of the TUC since 2013. He said: “Twelve years of pay cuts have left workers with no choice. Nurses, teachers and other key workers have been forced into taking action to defend their livelihoods and the services they provide.
“Those out on picket lines this winter got us through a pandemic. All they want is a fair day’s pay and to be able to provide for their families. But rather than sitting down and negotiating in good faith with unions, ministers are sabotaging efforts to reach settlements.”
Nowak’s intervention came as new TUC research underlined the scale of lost earnings since the 2008 financial crisis. On average, UK workers have lost £20,000 as a result of pay not keeping pace with inflation, and by 2025 will have lost £24,000. Nurses have lost a total of £42,000, according to the analysis, while midwives and paramedics have missed out on £56,000.
The TUC warned that workers will be left exposed to the cost-of-living crisis if private sector employers and the government do not boost wages. Average real-terms earnings are expected to fall by £79 a month next year, while public sector pay will fall by more than £100 a month.
Nowak reserved particular ire for Barclay who, earlier this month, accused ambulance unions of making “a conscious choice to inflict harm on patients” by striking over pay.
“The word appalled doesn’t do it justice,” Nowak said. “To try and deflect blame for what was happening on to people like those EMTs [emergency medical technicians] and paramedics I thought was pretty reprehensible.
“Millions of people are being put at risk every week in our NHS because of the chronic underfunding and because of what’s happened to staff. The idea that somehow this is the fault of the people who provide care to patients day-in day-out is pretty reprehensible, and I don’t think the public buy it.”
While reports suggest rail unions are close to reaching a deal with transport companies, other public sector workers appear to have been met with obstinacy. But Nowak said strikes will persist if ministers refuse to negotiate, accusing the government of “the definition of madness: doing the same thing and expecting different results”.
He added that unions such as Unite and the GMB had succeeded in negotiating with some private sector employers to offer pay rises. On the government’s approach to public sector pay, Nowak said: “If putting your hands over your ears and saying ‘la la la’ very loudly is a strategy then maybe Rishi Sunak’s got one, but I don’t think he has.
“The government thinks it can just blindly ignore millions of public sector workers and that somehow in January this is all going to right itself, which it’s not.”
Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt and the new business secretary, Grant Shapps, have so far failed to meet either Nowak or O’Grady despite past promises. Nowak said it was “incredible” no meeting had taken place amid the strikes.
He warned Sunak that “if he’s going to have any credibility as prime minister, he’s going to have to find a way to engage beyond his own party”.
“I think that reinforces that they [ministers] believe they can hunker down and just see this one out. I think to a lot of our members, it would smack of arrogance that they’re not prepared to sit down with people who represent millions of working people,” Nowak said.
“And by not doing that, they’re torpedoing any chance of reaching a fair settlement and finding a way forward.”
In response to the strikes, the government has threatened new anti-union laws that would restrict the right of key public sector workers to take industrial action.
Nowak described this as “the old 1980s playbook” and accused Sunak of throwing “red meat” to the Conservative right, though he added that he believes the Prime Minister is serious about the changes.
“I don’t think it was just a negotiating tactic,” he said, warning that unions will “have to pull out all the stops” to halt the move.
“It just seems perverse that you would do this at this time. We’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. So we will be trying to get them to pay as high a political price as possible.” Nowak added that employers who sense “the political wind is changing” could also act as a “sensible voice” and try to influence the government.
Public support for striking workers remains broadly high and has followed the success of trade union leaders, such as Mick Lynch, the secretary-general of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, in making their case in the media.
Nowak said he had been “pleasantly surprised” by the public’s support.
“Individual strikes always, by their nature, inconvenience people and people don’t like that, so people don’t like strikes, but what’s become very clear is that people understand the reason why people are taking strike action and they support that fundamental right.”
Nowak argued that trade unionists can maintain support by underlining how striking workers aim to improve public services as well as pay.
“We still have 133,000 vacancies in the NHS and services are at breaking point every single day,” he said.
“And the public know that’s not just going to fix itself. I think they feel that people are taking strike action because they care about the service and they want the service to be better, likewise with Royal Mail.
“Most people will read the headlines about the CWU [Communication Workers Union] being on strike and might have a grumble about it. And then their postie trundles down the path, and that’s the face of the Royal Mail they see day-in day-out.”
One of the biggest long-term challenges facing trade unions is the UK’s shift towards net zero and the consequent impact on jobs in energy and heavy industry.
Nowak said he understood the resistance from unions such as the GMB, which represents many offshore and nuclear workers, remarking that “warm words about a just transition wouldn’t cut any mustard with me” if he was in their position.
“I want to see every major employer develop a net zero plan and do it alongside the workforce, where there’s a union sitting down with them, and reach an agreement on how we’re going to get to net zero,” he said.
Turning to Labour and Keir Starmer’s decision to ban frontbench MPs from joining trade union picket lines, Nowak denied the move had damaged relations between the party and some of its biggest donors.
“I don’t think the relationship between the Labour Party and the trade union movement should be mediated through the prism of whether or not you got your photo taken at a picket line you attended for 20 minutes,” he said.
Labour enjoys an average poll lead of around 20 points over the Conservatives, but concerns remain over whether Starmer can secure power at the next election.
“I think Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss gave [Starmer] a helping hand,” Nowak said. “And I think the government’s inability to fix anything at the moment – with rail, the NHS, our borders – means Labour are increasingly looking like a credible party of government, but you can’t take anything for granted.
“I’m old enough to remember the 1992 election where people thought it was just one last heave and then we had John Major for five years.”
Nowak also appeared to accept that a Labour government would not be able to transform the UK immediately following a decade of austerity and a surge in government borrowing. “I’m never patient but I’m realistic enough to know that on day one you can’t put right 12 or 13 years of wilful neglect,” he said. “What you’ve got to do is set out a very clear direction of travel.”