People seem to shy away from talking about pay – and even more from fighting for it. Yet pay, or lack of it, is what unites us as workers. It is currently a source of weakness, but it could become one of our strengths...
Pay is the proverbial elephant in the room for workers. We don’t want to see, hear, think about or seriously consider the question of pay, wages, what we take home and its value. Workers started to address this in our previous issue (April 2012) through two articles: “Attack on national pay” and “Trade unions – dead or alive?”. But we need greater application, organisation and engagement both within trade unions, to set the pace, and by non-unionised workers, to join or re-join organised labour.
The workforce of Britain comprises around 28 million people, the largest number of workers in the country’s history. But it is a workforce split between part-time, casual, full-time, zero hours contract, agency, temporary employment and so on. Britain has probably the greatest level of so-called flexibility in its workforce outside of the USA. It has the lightest regulatory controls for protecting workers’ employment rights, terms and conditions outside of the USA. It has the most draconian anti-union legislation anywhere in Europe.
The Coalition government wants to expand that “flexibility” by removing any restraint on employers so that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whoever they want – all in the name of free trade. Likewise the government wants to remove any regulatory controls which protect workers at work. All the measures achieved over decades and centuries are to be challenged, swept away as red tape hindering “business” – which is code for capitalism. It is not the government’s intention to further restrict trade unionism; it wants to destroy trade unionism.
The fragmentation of Britain’s labour force and the creation of ever greater divisions and competition among ourselves for jobs, training and employment stability is deliberate. There is unprecedented growth in employer strategies and their use of think tanks. These specialise in how to attack, undermine, fragment, outsource, divide, confuse and divert us from organising ourselves for ourselves. They have studied what makes us strong and are systematically fragmenting those processes.
This attack on our strength has intensified over the past 40 years. But the clarity of the employers and ruling class that they could only be defeated by our unity reaches back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. From the first Combination Act (1799) to the present-day Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and all the additional nasty European Court decisions, the attack has always been to stop our ability to “combine”.
So what is the elephant in the room? Our ability, by combination, by joining the union, to make inroads into the value we create and to recoup part of that value in the form of wages. The employers’ position is simple and diametrically opposite: they combine to maximise their rate of profit by splintering our ability to resist. This is the great challenge facing workers now.
It is not a matter of pursuing the populist slogan of “resisting the race to the bottom”; that race has always been capitalism’s strategy. It is about workers not having a victim mentality which bleats “Don’t do these terrible things to me”, but one that instead asserts an independence of mind and organisation and says “You are not going to do these things”. It is a view that says not only don’t do them but one which asserts a clear alternative class agenda.
The most important factor ignored in the decline of Britain’s trade unions from 1997 to date, let alone the campaign of industrial destruction launched against us through capitalism’s absolute decline, has been that lack of class consciousness and its decline in our own ranks. The acceptance of defeat, fatalism that nothing can be done, withdrawal from collective identity and action, refusal to recognise that combination gives us strength and purpose, have all contributed to a turning away from what gives us hope, expectation, aspiration and strength. That is now the organising challenge – not new, but the reassertion of real organising – that the trade unions have to address.
Workers have to think about what is going to get us out of this mess. That’s the case whether we are in the private sector or public service, or in the privatised public service, whether in trade unions rooted in the private sector that grew into the public sector or in public sector unions now racing towards the private sector. What matters is not what divides us – the employers’ uniform, the type of contract, North vs South, race, gender, migrant or born here, left or right, but what unifies us.
The low-wage economy is a reality for workers as average wages decline and real incomes drop to 2005 levels. The British people now have the lowest real disposable household income since 1945, with increases almost daily in food, fuel, mortgages, rents, travel, even postage stamps. How do we remedy this? The answer: organise for pay and struggle and press for wages as best we can.
What is the reality on wages? Pay figures are misrepresented – or, it could even be suggested, deliberately falsified, by government statistics (the Office for Budget Responsibility) or government mouthpieces (the TaxPayers’ Alliance). A pay freeze is presented as the norm, but in reality this applies only to around 5 per cent of workers or fewer in the private sector. Wage increases in the private sector are running at 2 to 3.5 per cent and in manufacturing industry 4 to 6 per cent. The only area where there is a sustained pay freeze is in the public sector: if not zero increases as for the last two to three years, then 1 per cent increases until 2015, wage cuts in real terms year in, year out.
Firefighters on the picket line during their national pay dispute of 2002.
The attack in every public sector arena is on terms and conditions in addition to wage freezes. Local government sees an attempt to break the national (NJC) agreement, in health with Agenda for Change, likewise in the universities, civil service, schools and colleges, police – the list includes all the public sector.
In the privatised sector providing public services – such as home care, residential homes and housing associations – government austerity measures cutting funding are instantly transferred from employers to the workforce. Pay cuts of 50 per cent and abolition of overtime and of enhanced rates are appearing across the sector.
It is said that wages are grossly inflated in the public sector, and that a knock-on effect of national public sector bargaining is to push up depressed regional pay in the private sector. So the government argues for pay in the public sector to be cut on a regional basis. But where is the evidence to support such claims? It doesn’t exist. Private sector pay in the regions tends to follow national company pay rates based upon skill requirements and equality proofed job evaluation, not localism or the whim of some local manager who has got out of the wrong side of the bed!
Most employers recognise that differentiated pay rates or differing rates within the same company are a two-edged sword. Claims for parity of wages, leapfrogging pay claims, permanent uncertainty in wages, poaching of staff – all were strengths of the trade unions in the 1970s and 1980s, and what the employers have tried to distance themselves from. Would they sacrifice job evaluation for a real fight over wages when job evaluation has so successfully weakened our bargaining position? And trade unions hiding behind job evaluation and legal claims to achieve equal pay have weakened our ability to organise at the workplace.
As privatisation eats into the public services, the Social Contract consensus politics of Britain from 1945 to 1979 will finally be obliterated. From the class armistice embodied in joint worker/
employer councils from the industrial settlement after the 1914–18 World War and of all the associated national bargaining structures, we return to a naked conflict: the employers’ profits and our ability to get them back for ourselves.
This is not revolutionary politics, neither was the idea of “socialism” through state nationalisation revolutionary, despite what some thought. But it is the return to British reality: class against class.
Capita Registrars – registrar for more than half of the companies listed on the London Stock Exchange – estimates that British companies paid £67.8 billion in dividends in 2011, an increase of 19.4 per cent over the previous year. Despite all the hype bank bonuses are at record levels.
Yet unemployment in Britain creeps towards officially 3 million. And the number of workers “economically inactive” – those on benefit, those underemployed, those on no register, creeps towards 5, 6, or even 7 million. All economic forecasts for Britain speak of zero or minus growth and yet the capitalists increase their own wealth daily.
What is to be done? From the moaning and whingeing about how dreadful things are there has to arise a determination to do something. From the individual struggling with his or her wage packet must arise a collective determination to do something.
That determination has to be one of taking responsibility for each workplace. The immediate period is going to be painful as realisation dawns that refocusing on the workplace, irrespective of the divisions fostered and created by the employers, will entail sacrifice and loss – nothing is guaranteed.
Workers are going to have to rediscover or even re-create that ability to organise against the odds, develop strategy and tactics to fight on new fronts but set in an old war, relearn our history and the weapons of unity, organisation and discipline. Nobody else is going to sort this out. There are no knights in white armour and there is no parliamentary party to go cap in hand to.
We may have been here before but the road forward is as dangerous as it was to our forebears. We fight for wages because that way we survive. We survive to challenge capitalism and destroy it. ■