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From The Socialist newspaper, 14 June 2007

What we think

United public sector struggle needed

ROYAL MAIL management has declared that it will not return to negotiations with the post workers' union, the CWU, over their pay claim, unless they call off the threatened national strike. Post office bosses say that the post office faces its "miners' moment" (a reference to former Tory leader Thatcher's confrontation with the National Union of Miners in 1984-85).

The civil service management has ignored the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) demand to end separate pay bargaining for the over 200 different parts of the civil service and instead negotiate across the board with the unions for all civil service workers. The management is in fact trying to introduce even more separation of the workers from each other by the introduction of regional pay bands in the new ministry of justice.

In the health service the unions are demanding that their pay is not staged as the NHS is proposing to do but instead to pay it all in one go. But the management has so far ignored the unions' request. The so-called professional staff, nurses, doctors, etc, have for some time lost the right to negotiate directly with their employers and like the teachers have to submit 'evidence' to a government appointed pay review body (PRB), who then hand down the pay 'award' as it is called, after deliberations.

Now, the health ancillary trades, cleaners, porters, administration workers etc in the health service have had indications that the PRB will in future also decide their pay levels so ending the decades-old collective bargaining for these workers as well.

Teachers who also face the same pay limit of 2% as civil servants and health workers (though health workers' pay is in fact being staged in two parts so that the 2% is initially cut to 1.5%) have demanded that the PRB is reconvened to take on board that inflation is at 4.3%. Under the remit of the PRB, education minister Alan Johnston is required to do this but has steadfastly refused to.

The government is also introducing a change, for non-teaching school staff to be separated from the collective bargaining arrangements that cover all local government workers at the moment, the 'green book' conditions and procedures.

Unfortunately this is being done with the support of all the council unions.

The separation of school support staff will result not in better conditions but in a gradual run-down of the present national conditions. They will be replaced by local arrangements whereby the employers will be able to ignore if they wish the minimum standards laid down in the green book.

Government strategy

The New Labour government is orchestrating centrally the coming together of these changes in the public sector. It is part of Gordon Brown's strategy to break up the public sector by weakening the unions' ability to organise nationally against the overall attacks of privatisation and job cuts.

For the government, the biggest obstacle to their plans is the existence of national unions and the nationally agreed pay and conditions which have been in place for many years. It sees it as crucial to end this situation and introduce localised arrangements whereby the weakest organised parts of the public sector can be picked off one by one.

If that happens, it will be easier for the employers to also carry through other measures, like privatisation and cuts, without the potential threat of a reaction that could spread beyond the borders of their immediate workforce.

The private sector also went through a similar process with the break-up of big companies into smaller entities. This meant for example that, under the anti-union laws, it became illegal for workers who had previously been in the same company with similar pay and conditions agreements to take action in support of each other. It was deemed as secondary action and declared illegal.

This was the case in the railway industry. The break-up of British Rail led to the setting up not only of over 20 operating companies but also hundreds of other smaller contractors who greedily fed on the body of what had been previously a unified national rail industry.

The attack on national bargaining in the rail industry has to a certain extent been repulsed by the ability of the main rail union, the RMT, to mobilise its members in various companies behind a model minimum wages and conditions agreement. This in turn forced the individual employers to concede to these demands or face a strike by their workers. It also helped considerably that transport workers have the economic power to bring the economy to a grinding halt if a strike takes place almost anywhere on the network.

Labour's plans to break the back of the public sector unions by the break-up of national pay bargaining arrangements should be vigorously opposed. The potential now exists for a united struggle over the pay freeze by millions of public sector workers. But this requires a planned strategy and application and unfortunately not many of the union leaders, with the honourable exception of a few, seem to want to go down this path.

Weak leadership

The union leaders are desperate not to have to organise strike action. Up to now only the PCS, leading hundreds of thousands of civil servants, has taken national strike action. The NHS unions, primarily UNISON, are seemingly prepared to accept a deal for 2% as long as it is not in stages. The NUT leadership is yet to say what it will do to force Alan Johnston to reopen negotiations or at least reconvene the PRB.

The local authority unions have also said little, though the UNISON local government conference next week in Brighton will have before it a number of resolutions demanding action.

The union leaders are holding back a movement that is screaming out for unified action. The recent TUC public sector liaison committee, a sub-committee of the TUC general council, met and decided unbelievably there was no mood for action amongst workers over pay. This was despite the PCS action and just weeks before the overwhelming vote amongst postal workers for strike action.

The obstacles to unity at the top seem on the surface insurmountable. It will take enormous pressure from below to force some of these 'leaders' to move into action. That is why the launch of the RMT-initiated shop stewards network is so important to the working class and to working-class struggles in Britain now and in the future.

All trade unionists who want to fight back against the government's attacks, should come to it to discuss the way forward.

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In The Socialist 14 June 2007:

Fight for a living wage

No to attacks on pay and conditions: leaflet

Come to the National Shop Stewards Network Founding Conference

Founding Conference of the National Shop Stewards Network

Stoke: Anger at postal privatisation

Unison national conference

Fight attacks on the public sector

Members' discontent strengthens left in UNISON elections

Campaign For A New Workers' Party public meeting

Swansea workers fight privatisation

Merger with GMB?

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Socialist Party NHS campaign

Fresh wave of protest in NHS

Labour climbs down in Wales - but for how long?

Coventry - Anger at NHS redundancy threat

Durham hospitals jobs threat

Prescription for profit

Stem cell potential to break medicine bottleneck

War and terrorism

Stop The War Coalition - demonstration

Anti-Bush day in Italy - A tale of two protests

G8 Summit protests

What did the G8 summit achieve?

G8 protests: Determination wins through

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Western hypocrisy over 'democracy' utilised by Putin

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Oil, profits, sleaze and hypocrisy

How Mittal makes millions

Bosses' bonuses

Amicus conference: Unite and New Labour


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