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Britain needs a pay rise: How can we get it?
Fight for mass action to end cuts and low pay
Rob Williams, Socialist Party trade union organiser
When the TUC first organised their 'Britain Needs a Pay Rise' demonstration on 18 October, it is hard to believe that they saw it as an integral part of a campaign of co-ordinated strike action. The first mention of it on their website was 11 February. Surely unbeknown to them, eight months later that date is days after hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have taken industrial action to break the Con-Dem pay freeze.
More than likely, the TUC and the Labour-affiliated unions saw the march as an opportunity to assist Labour in the protracted pre-election period by exposing the anti-working class policies of this Tory-led government, although Labour agrees with the pay freeze!
The fact that starting on 10 July and continuing into October, unions have called out members in local government, education, civil service and now the NHS is a reflection of the pressure that they have been subject to because of the grinding misery that the continuing fall in living standards has represented for millions of workers and their families.
However, the decision of the unions in local government to suspend their strike on 14 October is a major setback to the type of mass co-ordinated action needed to push the government back on pay. But activists in these unions and the NUT teachers union, which had already suspended action will be determined to get them back into the pay dispute.
The symptoms of the growing catastrophe facing working-class families are everywhere. The Trussell Trust, the largest food bank provider in the UK, says it has handed out 913,000 food parcels in the last year, up from 347,000 the year before. It added that there was a "shocking" 51% rise in clients to established food banks. The charity said that more than 30% of visits were put down to a delay in welfare payments but the second biggest reason, given by 20% of food bank users, was low income.
This is despite the social stigma attached to using them. In a recent survey by the University of Manchester, a 55 year old described how she had collected a food parcel on behalf of her grown-up daughter who was too embarrassed to come. She stated: "My daughter doesn't want to be seen as a scrounger." A child said: "We say to my mum make sure you eat but she says she's not hungry...she's just making sure we eat first." A survey by the NASUWT teachers' union revealed that a quarter of teachers have brought food into school to feed hungry pupils and a fifth have bought them lunch.
There are similar figures about payday loan companies, who are the suited and booted loan sharks as food banks are modern day soup kitchens. Last year, the charity StepChange handled £110 million-worth of payday loan debt, up from £60 million in 2012.
The so-called respectability of these vultures has now been exposed by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) - forcing leading payday loan company Wonga to write off £220m of debts for 330,000 people who couldn't afford to repay it. No wonder, when they charge interest rates over 5,000%!
In his speech to Conservative Party conference, Cameron again tried the Tory 'divide and rule' tactic of targeting benefits. But it was estimated that over half those who would suffer would be low-paid workers or the 'working poor', who earn so little that they qualify for in-work benefits and tax credits.
A report by the Office for National Statistics revealed that pay dropped by 0.2% in August in absolute terms. Yet incomes have been falling in 'real terms' for most of the period since the financial crisis of 2007-08. The Bank of England governor Mark Carney was invited to address this year's TUC and admitted that incomes had fallen by 10% since the crisis. He also thanked the unions for the sacrifice made by their members in "doing their bit" during the crisis! But on closer inspection, the ONS figures reveal a generation gap with those under 25 suffering a loss of 14%! This is hardly surprising when younger workers face the full brunt of zero-hour contracts, temporary work and lower rates of pay for new starters. They will be on worse pensions, if they exist at all. Yet graduates are expected to repay student debts inflated by £9,000 a year tuition fees!
The downward pressure on pay started under the last Labour government. The economic crisis was used by the bosses in the private sector to lower workers' wages and terms and conditions to literally get us to pay for their crisis. Many workers paid the price to retain their jobs by pay freezes or cuts and short-time working. However, the recovery of incomes has been very slow. To most workers, the so-called economic recovery is an utter myth that is only happening for the employers and the politicians, with MPs in line for an 11% pay increase!
Bosses, whether they are private sector employers or the government, have been quick to play off workers against each other. This was attempted in the public sector pensions dispute when they contrasted the so-called 'gold-plated' pensions of these workers with their counterparts in the private sector. In reality, this was a myth, with the average public sector worker receiving £7,000 a year in retirement. Similarly with pay, the fact that the squeeze in the private sector, where union density and organisation is inferior, was greater than the public sector, has been used as justification for the government attack.
The austerity offensive that was unleashed by Osborne in the autumn of 2010 has in effect been a deep recession for public sector workers, as well as working-class communities who rely on their services. The first two years saw public sector pay frozen absolutely, followed by two years of a limit of 1%.
Infamously, even this paltry rise isn't guaranteed in the NHS where up to 55% of workers will get nothing. Yet in the four years from 2010, RPI inflation rose by 4% a year on average. But even this price index, which, by including mortgages, is almost always higher than the CPI index now more commonly used by the government, is an under-estimate of the real cost of living, particularly those facing huge rents.
Socialists explain that workers in the public and private sectors have to be united to resist the attack on all workers' incomes. Just as those in the private sector made concessions to keep their jobs in the depths of the recession, many public sector workers have been the victims of 90-day redundancy and re-engage notices. These have removed or worsened hard-won elements of their terms and conditions, such as car fuel allowances, that they have relied on as their pay has stagnated.
On top of this, the defeat of the pensions struggle as a result of the capitulation of the right-wing union leaders and the TUC, after the mammoth 2-million strong strike in November 2011 (N30) has meant that public sector workers have had their monthly pension contributions increased. In many cases, this has amounted to an effective cut in wages of anything up to £100 per month.
In addition, the vicious programme of cuts which have also been passed on by Labour councils have seen many public sector workers outsourced and privatised which has been a platform for swingeing wage cuts. The incredible strike by Care UK health sector workers in Doncaster, of over 80 days so far, was triggered by cuts of 25% as a result of being pushed into the private sector.
However, the N30 strike does point the way forward for all workers. That mass strike shook the Con-Dems, forcing Cameron into a volte face over his comments on the morning of the walkout that it was a 'damp squib'. Actually it was a massive show of strength by millions of workers in, arguably, the biggest single day of strike action since the 1926 General Strike.
In almost every town and city, there were mass strike rallies that revealed that any idea of a division between workers could be torn down, as the strikers received tremendous public support. As the reaction to the London tube workers strike earlier this year showed, when the unions act in a decisive way they become a reference point to all workers and others suffering from the brutal cuts and employers' offensives.
On the morning of N30, hundreds of 'The Sparks' - electricians in the construction industry - went from their weekly protest to a number of public sector picket lines. The Sparks were fighting against the imposition of a new BESNA contract that would have cut their wages by up to 35%. But through militant action and an official strike ballot by their union Unite, they were able to defeat the attack.
Undoubtedly, the sight and sounds of workers in the public sector throughout 2011 on strike and on the march, gave confidence to many other workers that it was possible to fight back. In return, victories such as that won by the Sparks and the London bus workers in 2012, who won an Olympic bonus, showed that it is possible to fight and win.
The setback of the pensions battle after the N30 strike has undoubtedly taken its toll on the confidence of workers, especially in the public sector. It opened the door still further and emboldened what is a weak and divided government. The result has been hundreds of thousands of redundancies, many of them would have been workers who strongly identified with the union. Many workers will have asked when contemplating action over pay: "Can we win?", "Will the union go all the way?"
But despite this, the July 10th pay strike of over a million was the biggest strike since N30 and showed that there are big layers of workers who realise that they have to fight to stop the slaughter of their incomes. Despite how anaemic this 'recovery' seems to workers, the fact that the economy has stabilised, at least for now, with perhaps the immediate threat to jobs lessened, can give workers confidence that it's possible to fight on pay. Sometimes in the midst of a deep crisis, workers can feel helpless.
Following the recent impressive action from NHS workers and civil servants on the one hand, and the calling off of the action in local government on the other, it's clear the pay struggle is at a crucial stage. These paltry offers must be rejected. The campaign must be continued and escalated. More strikes must be called before Christmas and into the New Year, with all the public sector involved.
The Socialist Party and the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) have been to the fore in building pressure on the TUC and the unions to call a 24 hour general strike. This could unite all workers in every sector to defeat Cameron's austerity and the employers' offensive. It would have huge support from the majority of people who are the victims of the cuts.
A significant breakthrough by a sizable group of workers would have a huge effect in raising the sights of all workers. It would not only shake the ConDems but also lay down a marker to all the mainstream parties, including Labour, who refuse to back the pay strikes because they have accepted Tory austerity.
Scandalously, the leaders of the Labour affiliated unions whose members have been on strike in the councils and the NHS against the pay freeze, accepted Miliband's spending plans at this summer's Labour Policy Forum. They wrongly believe that to go along with this is to protect their members because easing off Labour best ensures their victory at the general election next May.
In reality, they are only maintaining the idea that workers have to accept the cuts. They are loosening the pressure on Labour and disorientating union members and activists who cannot understand why the unions, the paymasters of Labour, are rolling over and being humiliated.
But history won't stop at the election. The incredible energy of the Scottish Independence campaign was a political mobilisation of the working-class and poor for an alternative to the austerity consensus of all the main parties on the bidding of the capitalist establishment. It was the first chance that many would have had to vote in a decisive manner for what they saw as a clear alternative idea.
It is an anticipation of the next months and years in the rest of the UK, as workers struggle politically and industrially to take on and defeat the attack on their incomes and all the other gains won by the working-class, but now are in mortal danger from the cuts and privatisation.
Striving for mass strike action by the unions, whoever is meting out austerity, is a critical element of this. The passing of the £10 an hour minimum wage by the TUC is an opportunity to appeal to the millions of low-paid non-unionised workers to become part of what is still the biggest organised force in society.
But side by side with this is the need for a real political alternative that fights for a more equal, socialist future. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is best placed to fight for such a mass political vehicle and be a powerful attractive force for those workers in unions that are still affiliated to Labour to break them from that grip.