Ironically, the government has done unions a good turn through its directives on public sector pay...
By imposing a below inflation rise of 1 per cent for some health workers while denying anything to 60 per cent of non-clinical staff and 70 per cent of nursing and midwifery staff, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has sent a clear message out to NHS staff. And what has allowed the employers to present an offer that further depresses real pay is the linking of local government wages to the national minimum wage (in the union’s case the so-called Living Wage).
Workers on the march in London, October 2012.
At last public sector workers are coming to accept that since this government came to power in 2010 it has never wavered in its strategy of driving down public sector wages, establishing pay freezes as the norm, and contempt for workers who provide Britain’s core essential services – health, education, and the local services essential to society. Hunt spelt it out further as he destroyed the Health Pay Review Board’s 1 per cent offer by indicating pay freezes and wage cuts to continue way past 2016.
The unions have been hiding behind the Boards since the 1980s, with a strategy of asking an “independent” body to determine wages (independent of whom when the Treasury controls the purse strings?), instead of relying on members’ strength. Their strategy has now been well and truly wrecked. Dismantling of national agreements is likely to be a Tory pledge if re-elected in 2015.
The employers are on their knees to the government, and strategically the unions are fundamentally wrong and stupid to rely on the begging bowl of the Living Wage, pleading for more like Oliver Twist.
The universities, meanwhile, continue to accrue vast reserves of cash, with stunning increases for senior managers but with a pig-headed refusal to shift from the 1 per cent in the 2013 pay round and a similar offer for 2014-15.
For workers, facing reality means stopping the heated diversionary debates about whether we should be in the Boards, whether we should pursue local or national bargaining, and whether defending national bargaining to the death engages with our members. There has been a time and place for all those debates. That time has gone.
We have a ruling class government intent on destroying our ability to organise and to promote the interests of our class. And Labour is not saying much different.
This is not business as usual. This is the most dangerous period in the history of the organised working class in Britain. We need to renew the unions’ ability to function, re-discover our skills for beating employers and re-engage with our members about how to fight, not because we want to but because we have no choice.
In response to the 1 per cent offer in health, the unions are now identifying and addressing the many forms of government divide-and-rule where differing groups of workers are played off against each other over what offer they get or what rates apply in competing NHS trusts.
But also we need to defend the National Health Service. That NHS is now being seen as Britain-wide, not divided up into the so-called four countries with England, Wales and Scotland being played off against one another and Northern Ireland tagged on as the oldest British colony.
The key will be to centralise the unions’ role on pay, making it not only a Britain-wide fight but also a priority. This fight must be protracted and imaginative in its tactics, not just using industrial action but rebuilding a workplace consciousness, so that our army of labour can be resurgent, unified and competent in taking on the employers .
The government and the employers have thrown down the gauntlet. They think we are too weak to resist. They believe that siren voices in the labour movement will quiver at the knee and wail about not fighting in the run-up to a general election. They believe the traditional social democratic voices who argue that 1 per cent is better than zero will still be able to carry influence with our members.
We must cast away such illusions. We are not for engaging in a “one size fits all solution”; we can put the “general strike brigade” to one side. But we can engage in resurrecting workplace consciousness and anger. We can get organised. We can show unity. We can show the tactical discipline to pick our fights, on our terms, on a protracted basis. We can beat the government over wages and beat them we must. ■