London (AFP) -
Britain's government stood accused Wednesday of actively undermining talks with union leaders in a bid to encourage strike action and depress workers' wages across the economy.
The government was hoping for a public backlash, to justify newly introduced legislation that would force unions to provide a 'minimum service' in public sectors, railway union leaders said.
The allegation came as ambulance drivers and paramedics staged another walkout, prompting warnings of serious risk to the public -- part of a wave of industrial action amid double-digit inflation.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended the minimum service bill and revealed that he has used private healthcare 'in the past' -- after attacks from opposition parties that he is out of touch with the public.
Mick Lynch, who leads the main RMT rail workers' union, said the legislation was a 'stage-managed' climax to the Conservative government's anti-union agenda.
'If they were doing that in (Vladimir) Putin's Russia, or in Iran, or China, they would rightly be condemned. Conscripting workers to go to work against their will is an outrage,' he told a committee of MPs.
'That is a deliberate policy of the government of this country, to lower the wages of working people right across the spectrum -- especially where they have an influence -- to make them poorer than they used to be,' he added.
'To me it's sabotage. And they wanted these strikes to go ahead.'
- 'Constructive dialogue' -
Lynch and Mick Whelan of the train drivers' union ASLEF ruled out one key demand of government-backed rail operators, to eliminate guards on trains, and said both sides remained far apart on pay.
They said they were willing to consider a reported offer from the government for a one-off cash bonus to deal with the surge in inflation seen since Russia invaded Ukraine.
But Whelan agreed that the government had a broader agenda in play.
'It does appear ideological,' he said, insisting that his union could afford to keep the strikes going 'for a long time'.
'We're in it for the long haul. Our members will do this -- because it's their futures -- for as long as it takes.'
Sunak, addressing the first parliamentary session of Prime Minister's Questions of 2023, insisted he wanted 'constructive dialogue' with the unions but said pay deals cannot stoke new inflation.
'No one denies the unions' freedom to strike,' the prime minister said of the new legislation.
'But it is also important to balance that with people's right to have access to life-saving healthcare.'
France, Italy and Spain already required public-sector unions to offer a minimum service in strikes, he said, mocking the opposition Labour party for normally wanting 'more European alignment' rather than less.