UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is preparing to meet union leaders this week for what he hopes will be “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 walked out across industries in recent months to demand better working conditions and pay raises in line with inflation, which is still running at double digits in the U.K.
U.K. 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 Budget Responsibility projects that British households are set to experience their sharpest fall in living standards on record.
Sunak told reporters during a visit to a London school last Friday that he is seeking a “grown up, honest conversation with union leaders about what is responsible, what is reasonable and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay,” according to Reuters.
The legislation, which Sunak’s government plans to introduce in Parliament within the next few weeks, would allow bosses to sue unions for disruption and sack employees who participated in industrial action.
The full details of the plan may be laid out as soon as Thursday, according to The Times newspaper, but the initial announcement was met with outrage by union leaders.
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.
A total of 2,600 Unite ambulance workers are set to strike on January 23.
The NHS is facing an unprecedented crisis, with hospitals full, patients lying in corridors and ambulances queueing outside emergency departments unable to offload patients or respond to new calls.
Prime Minister Sunak held an emergency meeting with health leaders over the weekend and told them that “bold and radical” action would be needed to guide the NHS through the crisis.
National rail networks have also been heavily disrupted by strikes over the past four weeks, with the latest 48-hour walkout by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union resulting in only around one in five trains across Great Britain running.
Writing by Tersoo Nicholas