UK hit by worst month for strikes in 11 years as pay disputes escalate

LONDON, Dec 13 (Reuters) - The United Kingdom recorded the highest number of working days lost to labour disputes in October for more than 10 years, official data showed on Tuesday, as employees went on strike to demand higher pay in the face of soaring inflation.

The data comes as more than 40,000 railway workers begin their latest round of walkouts on Tuesday in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions, causing widespread disruption to the country's transport network.

The Office for National Statistics said 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the highest since November 2011 when just under a million days were lost due to public sector workers walking out in a row over pension reforms.

Between June and October this year, more than 1.1 million working days were lost, the ONS figures showed, the highest in a five-month period since early 1990.

Workers across a range of sectors have gone on strike in recent months, from rail workers to teachers, postal staff to lawyers, as inflation, which hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October, squeezes household budgets.

While some smaller, mostly private sector disputes have been resolved, the government has so far refused to budge on public sector pay and is instead looking to tighten laws to make it harder for those in key sectors to strike.

The government says the pay rises being demanded are unaffordable and hiking pay to match inflation would only worsen the problem.

"Any action that risks embedding high prices into our economy will only prolong the pain for everyone, and stunt any prospect of long-term economic growth," finance minister Jeremy Hunt said.

ONS data showed pay, excluding bonuses, grew in annual terms by 6.9% in the private sector in the three months to October, compared with 2.7% in the public sector.

"CLOSED THEIR BOOKS"

Strikes are due to take place nearly every day in December, with nurses set to walk out on Thursday for the first time in their union's history.

Following a meeting with the health minister on Monday, the head of the Royal College of Nursing union, Pat Cullen, said the government had refused to discuss pay.

"They have closed their books and walked away," she said.

Union estimates forecast more than 1 million working days will be lost in December, making it the worst month for disruption since July 1989.

Polls show that while the majority of the public support nurses striking over pay, only a minority back the rail strikes.

The RMT union, which represents the 40,000 rail staff walking out for eight days in the run-up to and over the Christmas period, said on Monday 63.6% of its members who voted had rejected the latest offer of a 5% and 4% pay rise over two years from Network Rail, which owns and maintains train infrastructure.

"The tide of opinion amongst the public is turning," transport minister Mark Harper told ITV. "They would like the fair and reasonable offer on the table to be accepted."

Harper said reforms were needed to the railways as 20% of passengers and 40% of commuters had not returned to the network after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Industry body UKHospitality has warned the rail strikes would have a hugely damaging impact during one of the busiest trading periods of the year, with an estimated hit to revenues of 1.5 billion pounds as Christmas party bookings are cancelled.

Reporting by Kylie MacLellan, additional reporting by Andy Bruce and Sarah Young; Editing by Kate Holton and Alex Richardson

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