British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed to get “tough” as members of various unions in the U.K. have gone on strike or announced plans for walkouts across a number of industries that threaten the holidays.
Sunak told Parliament that he would “take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public,” if “union leaders continue to be unreasonable.”
“My priority is making sure that I keep people safe, and that I minimize the disruption on their lives, and I will do what is required to do that,” Sunak said.
Postal workers, rail operators, ambulance drivers, Scottish teachers and nurses are among the various groups to go on strike in the largest wave of walkouts in Britain since 1989. The number includes over 20,000 ambulance workers who will walkout on Dec. 21, joining the over 115,000 Royal Mail postal workers who walked out on Friday, with plans to continue striking on Dec. 14, 15, 23 and 24, according to the BBC.
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The unions and employers have reached a stalemate in negotiations over higher pay and a reduction in redundancies – or staff cuts – as they face a higher cost of living. Inflation has pushed energy levels to their highest prices in decades as many people struggle to keep warm during winter.
Public and Commercial Services Union General Secretary Mark Serwotka told Reuters that the groups chose Christmas for their walkouts as a “last resort” to “ensure that the action that we call is noticed.”
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Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said that using Christmas as a pulpit was “unjustifiable” for jeopardizing thousands of families and businesses, and that the government will work with “all U.K. ports and airports and have robust plans in place to minimize any delays.”
The number of groups on strike will continue to grow over the coming weeks, with highway workers and Border Force workers set to start striking ahead of Christmas and remain on strike through the holiday.
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Border Force workers oversee passport checks at major airports and customs, meaning that travelers could spend hours or see little movement through major checkpoints if traveling around the Christmas season.
The Royal Mail suggested residents send out Christmas letters and packages earlier than usual in order to avoid delays due to the strike.
Sunak and Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer have sparred over the union disputes, with Sunak accusing Starmer of failing to “stand up for working people,” while Starmer claimed that Sunak was “grandstanding” and needed to “resolve these issues.”
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The Trades Union Congress General Secretary Fraces O’Grady urged the two leaders to stop taking “political pot shots” and start negotiating over pay. Starmer said that Labour would oppose “unworkable” minimum service levels legislation, but Sunak insists that his government has maintained a reasonable stance ad accepted independent reviews on appropriate pay.