‘We are in serious trouble’: Environment Agency workers call for strikes in two union votes

Environment Agency (EA) workers have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action for the second time, in a separate union vote, as DEFRA joins civil servants from other government departments in planning strike action next month.

Members of the Environment Agency take a water sample from Skelton Beck after a ruptured pipe leaked sewage

Of the EA workers eligible to vote in the Prospect union vote, 67% voted in favour of strike action and 92% voted in favour of action short of strike. The ballot passed the 50% participation threshold required for strike action to go forward.

Last week, members of the union Unison also voted in favour of strike action, with  73% of the EA staff that voted in the ballot voting in favour of strike action and 92% voting for action short of a strike.

There are two other unions that represent EA staff which are GMB and Unite.

This news comes after the agency forced a pay deal onto staff that was rejected by Prospect and Unison EA members in October. In a message sent to all staff and seen by ENDS, Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan said he had “decided that we pay you this year’s pay deal next month so that you all have it well before Christmas” and that it will appear in November salaries, backdated to July 2022.

Unions said staff had seen a “decade of real term pay cuts” and described the pay deal as being “unjust”. This led both Unison and Prospect to reject the pay deal and ballot their members to see whether they were prepared to strike on the matter.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect union, said: “Our members work in the Environment Agency because they are passionate about their work but there comes a point where passion is not enough for you to carry on in the face of tough times – that point has been reached.

“The Environment Agency is already struggling to fulfil its regulatory duties due to resourcing issues and experienced staff leaving. The bottom line is, if you have a higher proportion of less experienced staff then either the quantity of what you do suffers, or the quality. Eventually, it’s both which is why you see pollution incidents on the rise, fewer events being investigated, fewer prosecutions and fewer penalties handed out.”

UNISON head of environment Donna Rowe-Merriman added: “Inflation is now even higher than when the ballot opened. In the face of a derisory wage offer that’s way below the cost of living, it’s not hard to see why so many have voted to strike.

“Environment Agency workers take great pride in the support they give to communities and businesses across England. But they’ve been taken for granted for long enough and feel it’s now time to take a stand."

PCS union voters, which includes  DEFRA and the Department of Transport, also voted for industrial action earlier this month and have now announced that in mid-December a month-long targeted strike will take place if a deal is not reached.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “With tens of thousands of members on poverty pay it is no longer about tightening belts, but about choosing between heating and eating – and that is simply not acceptable for the government’s own workforce.

“We have made it clear to the Cabinet Office that we are available for talks throughout this period. I hope that they do the right thing and come back to the table prepared to meet our demands. If not, then we are prepared to do what we need to do to show them the value of our members' work once they withdraw their labour.”

A government spokesperson said: "PCS strikers are calling for a 10% pay rise, a Living Wage of at least £15 an hour, an immediate 2% cut in pension contributions, no further cuts to redundancy terms, and a job security agreement.

"We regret this decision. We greatly value the work of civil servants across the country, but the PCS Union's demands would cost an unaffordable £2.4 billion at a time when our focus must be on bringing down inflation to ease the pressure on households across the country, protect the vulnerable and rebuild our economy.
“Discussions will continue, but we can provide reassurance that we have comprehensive plans in place to keep essential services running and to minimise disruption if these PCS strikes do go ahead.”