Lessons for the church on the government response to industrial disputes

Two interesting lines of political reasoning are currently doing the rounds. First, there is Rishi Sunak’s comments that NHS nurses seeking a 19% pay increase is ‘obviously unaffordable’. Superficially, that response to a 19% pay increase seems reasonable. Who asks for that much? Ever.

But it bears asking how that decision was reached. An interesting chart can be viewed here showing NHS staff pay and cost of living since 2010. What it charts is a dance as old as the NHS itself. What typically happens is staff expect inflationary pay rises and the Government insist on negotiating and then, usually, offering below inflationary pay rises. Most people carry on, mildly miffed. The effect of this is to effectively cut pay year on year in real terms. The normal argument for doing this is that, whenever they are requested, pay increases (even if they are only inflationary) are deemed ‘obviously unaffordable’.

After multiple years of these real terms pay cuts, unions eventually suggest that staff may need to strike. A pay increase taking into account the years of real terms cuts is normally mooted at this point. But such a suggestion is always going to be considerably higher than RPI because it is reflecting the years of under-inflation rises (or, as most people ultimately receive them, real terms pay cuts) that were enacted. So, the RCN’s 19% pay rise – which on the face of it may seem excessive – is factoring in the many years of below inflation rises that have chipped away at the salary. The irony here being, the 19% figure is only considered ‘obviously unaffordable’ because governments have repeatedly not granted affordable inflationary pay rises in years past. Had they consistently done that and followed the same policy today, we would be discussing less than half the percentage increase the RCN are requesting.

Sometimes, as in 2020, a significant and above inflation pay rise is mooted to stave off any strike action. That rise will usually be significantly above inflation, giving the impression of a large rise, but will still put real terms pay below the level it was in the years before the real terms pay cuts approach. As in 2020, such an increase will often stave off an immediate strike. However, it merely kicks the can down the road as the real terms cuts policy continues thereafter, bringing the larger rise (which still hadn’t put people back onto an even keel) down further. What we are witnessing, then, is the claim that a large figure is unaffordable because earlier decisions to offer inflationary pay rises were consistently rejected.

The second interesting line of political reasoning came this week from Nadim Zahawi. With the Prime Minister arguing RCN pay demands were ‘obviously unaffordable’, the Minister Without Portfolio has insisted those threatening strike action are somehow playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands. Which, if I’m being honest, given all of his current travails – all of his own making – it is hard to imagine Putin is rubbing his hands together with glee over the thought of NHS staff going on strike. As the RCN general secretary, Pat Cullen, right stated, ‘By refusing my requests for negotiations, Steve Barclay is directly responsible for the strike action this month. Nursing staff don’t want to be outside their hospitals; they want to be inside, feeling respected and able to provide safe care to patients’.

But the reasoning is interesting. The government have insisted on the ‘obviously unaffordable’ line, when of course, a 19% pay increase is the result of year on year below inflation rises that amounted to real terms pay cuts. It is government policy on the issue that means such a large percentage is currently being sought. It is conveniently forgotten how quickly we found the money for vaccine production during the covid pandemic (which, whilst very probably necessary, were without doubt expensive) and just how much money was wasted by the government on dodgy PPE contracts. It is interesting how what is ‘obviously unaffordable’ is never a problem when it concerns something the government are moved to do.

But now, they insist – using the bogeyman of the moment – that strikes will play into Russian hands. As if, of course, the Russian government had any real interest in UK disputes over pay and conditions. It is hard to believe it registers especially highly on the Russian agenda given the current circumstances they find themselves in, how badly the war in Ukraine is going for them and the fact that they are not currently at war with us. We are one of the least reliant European nations on Russian gas; the problems for us have been caused as others who were reliant on it begin scrambling to access the same places we currently get our supplies (such as Norway), causing the basic problem of supply and demand. But none of that is particularly to Russian advantage.

These two lines of reasoning are examples of scare tactics. In the first, we are being shown a big, scary number and told it is utterly unaffordable. In the second, we are being told how this is enabling our enemy du jour. To seek proper pay and conditions is, tantamount, to bankrupting the country and giving succour to Putin in particular! These arguments are as facile as they are ludicrous.

Of course, the chances of the RCN getting the 19% pay demand they have requested is slim. But that is in the nature of negotiation. There will be, somewhere between the government’s current offer and the RCN’s demand, a negotiated offer to be found. But these sorts of arguments and unwillingness to negotiate at all do not make it very likely strike actions will be called off.

There are several lessons the church might learn from this. But two I think stand out. First, and perhaps this is stating the blindingly obvious, but decisions that we take will have an impact on how people respond to us in future. People will inevitably respond to us, and the things we ask of them, based on how we have dealt with them up to now. Just as offering real terms pay cuts for years will inevitably, at some point, lead to one massive request down the line to readjust matters, so the things we expect of people in the church will inevitably impact how they respond to us the next time.

The other lesson we might draw is how we make our case. The church – by some people’s reckoning – is in dire straits (if you care to take the census at superficial face value). Some local churches, that might once have been filled to the rafter with solid believers, may have dwindled in number. Some of those who have been serving well for many years may simply be getting older and less able to do everything they once did. It may well be we are in a situation where we are asking certain people to take on more, or for certain things not to happen because of resources, or just in a million and one different ways, circumstances are causing us to have to approach and do things differently. All of that is within the life of a church at times. We go through ebbs and flows, ups and downs, apparent periods of growth and progress and apparent periods of decline and constriction.

But whenever we look to effect whatever changes are necessary, or whenever some in the church would have us do what we do not think it possible to do (for whatever reason), we need to be careful how we make our case. Like the government throwing around Vladimir Putin’s name – like nurses are on first name terms with the bloke – Evangelical Churches have our own bogeymen (or bogey-doctrines) we can flash around to scare people into following our lead. Similarly, we can catastrophise any demands or desires from among the membership to suggest that – if we did that – it would spell disaster for the church. These lines of argument – unless there is clear and evident cause for making them – are not helpful or kind. If we are going to lead people well, and we have legitimate concerns about a course of action, we should be clear about what they are, not just looking to scare people into conformity.

It may well be that there are times something is unworkable or unsustainable. That’s okay. But we should be clear why that is the case rather than mounting facile arguments about the end of the church or suggesting via our bogeymen that these things are unacceptable. Perhaps the church does have to make careful spending decisions, which is inevitable. But we don’t need to suggest that choosing to spend in one area, and not in another, is the only way to avoid the end of the church is not helpful. Similarly, scaring people through bogeymen and bogey-doctrines, as if lighting candles at a carol service necessarily means we are on the slippery slope into Roman Catholicism, is just unkind. Honesty about where we are as a church, the reason we have gotten to where we have and clarity about why we may or may not something is for the good of everyone.