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Fight three year low pay tie-ins
German train drivers have just won an 11% wage increase. German Telecom workers on the other hand have suffered accumulated wage cuts amounting to 25% in recent years. The difference is down to the militant fighting leadership of the GDL train drivers' union.
In Britain, public-sector workers will face another three years of below inflation pay awards if Gordon Brown is allowed to implement his pay freeze. The almost six million public-sector workers will be looking to their unions for a response. With the exception of a few unions, opportunities to fight against last year's deals, particularly by taking joint action, were squandered by the leaderships. No wonder that Brown is pushing ahead with more wage restraint, when he sees no determined opposition.
But it could be very difficult for public-sector union leaders to hold back strike action in 2008, especially as public-sector pay rises have fallen below those in the private sector for two years.
Brown claims that 'staging' public-sector pay awards in 2007 (which resulted in lower pay deals) "helped break the back of inflation". He said that three year 2% increase deals would now mean: "as people face mortgage bills and utility prices they know exactly what their income is likely to be ...The whole purpose of this is keeping inflation under control...there is no point in a big salary rise that's wiped out by a big inflation rise".
In other words, workers have to accept low pay supposedly to contain inflation and avoid an economic recession - when the causes of both have nothing to do with those workers, and accepting pay restraint will not prevent an economic crisis. If MPs vote this month for a 10% increase for themselves, this will fuel more anger.
The government claims that inflation is 2.1%, based on the CPI which does not include housing costs, but the inflation measure which covers all items (RPI ) is running at 4.3%. It is price rises of necessities such as food, oil and utilities that have helped push inflation up to 4.3 %.
The Financial Times quotes economists who do not see a link between public-sector pay and inflation. "What I really can't believe" says Martin Weale (Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social research) "is that, when private-sector pay rises are 4%, a rise of 2.5% for the public-sector is inflationary".
Of course while the FT may not agree that inflation is a reason to curb public-sector pay (they cite squeezed government finances) they are not calling for decent pay increases. They state that: "Taking this stand would send a clear message that the government will not shy away from a confrontation about pay if that is what it takes."
One likely reason for three year deals is to get negotiations and possible industrial action out of the way now so that in the run-up to a general election, unions are still tied into pay deals. Another reason is the growing hole in public finances as government borrowing is likely to rise above £40 billion this year and to £50 billion in 2008/09.
Prison officers, teachers and police are the first in line. A 1.9% pay offer to police has instigated a ballot to allow strike action with a mass protest planned for 23 January. The Prison Officers Association, also restricted to 1.9%, are fighting government plans to ban prison officers from striking. They could call another strike soon, whether legal or not. Teachers' leaders have promised a ballot on pay though no date has yet been set.
Department of Work and Pensions workers in the PCS union have already taken action against an imposed below inflation three year deal with a well-supported two day national strike in December and a further strike on 31 January if talks do not move forward. Unison are consulting their membership on a 6% pay claim and the GMB on 7% for their public-sector members.
The TUC has warned that the pay attacks will put the government on "a collision course" with public servants, but as usual their angry talk is not a signal for industrial action.
With the exception of the left-led PCS, who have consistently taken strike action, the POA who organised a one day strike last year and the CWU, who also took action last year, other public-sector unions responded to anger over last year's pay cuts by talking about ballots and possible strikes but manoeuvring and delaying to avoid any action.
Last year's pay cuts came about due to staged deals and government refusals to honour the recommendations of the Pay Review bodies; pay deals were also spread throughout the year. This year is different. Not only is Brown's government intending to prolong wage cuts for another three years, it is also insisting on a fast track approach of pushing attacks through quickly on all public-sector unions.
This must be the green light for all public-sector unions to come together and plan united strike action. These six million workers have the power to shut down national and local government, prisons and schools.
At a TUC meeting of public-sector unions on 14 January the PCS again called for joint action over pay based on the same tactic of united action when fighting the attacks on pensions in 2005. All lefts and other trade union activists who see the necessity to defeat the government's pay cuts must urgently campaign within their unions for this, and also for Labour-affiliated unions to disaffiliate, as this link is used to block action.
In The Socialist 17 January 2008:
Environment and socialism
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Socialist Party campaigning
International socialist news and analysis
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