Economists to vote on strike action after below-inflation pay offer

NIESR’s management offered an increase worth 2% while latest data shows cost of living is up 5.1%

First published on Wed 15 Dec 2021 12.25 EST

Asking workers to stomach a below-inflation pay rise is never popular. Asking them to do so when their day job is forecasting the cost of living is really asking for trouble.

And so it has proved at the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. A strike ballot opened on Wednesday for members of the Unite union after the NIESR’s management offered a basic pay deal worth 2%. It comes after wages were frozen last year.

With the latest official data showing the cost of living was up by 5.1% in year to November, the union is confident its members will vote to shut down their computers and stop working on their spreadsheets.

Staff at the institute, founded in 1938 by a group of leading social and economic reformers including John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, are among the country’s pre-eminent forecasters of inflation, and have forecast average pay growth across the economy next year of 4.5%.

Now 21 Unite members, representing about half the total workforce, where average pay for economists and social researchers is between £22,000 and £41,000, predict a high probability of strike action outside the institute’s bookish Westminster offices.

The ballot will close on 7 January. Any action to down tools could affect research contracts which the NIESR has with other organisations, and its forecasts for the UK and global economies, which have been published quarterly since the 1980s.

It comes amid signs of growing unrest among workers as soaring energy costs and disruption to global supply chains pushes up living costs at the fastest rate for more than a decade, leading employees to push for higher pay in wider sectors of the economy than where there are immediately obvious pressure points.

The institute has promised staff a 0.6% rise above the 2% settlement backdated to September – if its financial performance improves between now and the end of March, while benefits such as extra holidays have been awarded.

Meanwhile, the economists’ own forecasts suggest Britain’s current inflationary burst is likely to prove temporary. According to their latest estimates, a “wage-price spiral” is especially unlikely, following a reduction in trade union power in recent decades.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, said the union was still ready to fight for a better pay deal.

“It’s astonishing that management are trying to fool economists by claiming they can’t afford to pay staff more. The workers play an important part in our national life and they have my full support,” she said.

A spokesperson for the NIESR said the pay offer was in-line with other similar organisations and came after a difficult year when the focus was on securing jobs without the need for government support.

“We have also committed, should the situation improve, to increasing our financial offer. We are therefore disappointed that strike action is now being considered by Unite, especially since we have been actively working with them in an attempt to resolve the situation.”

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