Workers in local government are to be balloted for strikes, with 10 July as the date set for action. But no thought has been given to any variety of ideas and activity that could challenge the employer or harness members’ ingenuity...
The real value of wages for public service workers has fallen since the election in 2010: by 20 per cent in local government, 10 per cent in health and 18 per cent for the civil service. That decline continues. And government and employers have thrown down a challenge to the trade unions by promising to cut wages even further.
March 2012: Local government workers on the TUC march in London.
In local government, we have been caught out by our own stupidity in seeking to tie wages to the national minimum wage or “living wage”. Employers have declined to make an offer until October, when the reviewed national minimum wage is due to be enacted.
A 1 per cent offer from the health sector pay review body has been contemptuously cast aside by the Treasury. The result is that between 60 and 70 per cent of NHS staff will receive no pay award. That divide-and-rule tactic plays wages off against terms and conditions. The picture is no better for civil servants (see Box, right).
Tactics – or lack of them
The local government trade unions, Unison, GMB and Unite, are to ballot their members for strikes, with 10 July as the date set for action. This shows a sterility of imagination on tactics. No thought has been given to any variety of ideas and activity that could be used to challenge the employer or harness our members’ ingenuity. Before the planned strike and even before the ballot has begun, such narrow, barren thinking can only contemplate the calling for another strike day in the autumn as the next step.
Local government workers have handicapped their cause by balloting just for a strike, rather than a combination of differing types of industrial action. Employers and government will be able to sit that out.
There’s also more behind the choice of dates and tactics. Choosing 10 July means the schools can be brought into the dispute before their summer break. And a further date in the autumn looks right to the false generals because schools are then back at work. They seem to be relying on school staff, probably because the town halls are fragmented, outsourced or worse still have terrifyingly low trade union density.
That’s a short-sighted approach from the unions, even if it were a valid short-term tactic. The drive for academies and free schools aims to further fragment our ability to deliver unified industrial action across local government and education. At the moment it is probably a greater danger than the government’s ideological mumbo jumbo about bringing the market into the education sector.
The splintering and separation of workers with common interests has been worsened by outsourcing, fragmenting service delivery and outright privatisation. That’s made possible by further anti-union legislation here and ever more hostile anti-union rulings from the European Union. The Labour Party’s election campaign supporting the European Union lauds the social rights introduced by EU law. That’s a hypocritical, anti-working class stance.
EU social “rights” make it almost impossible to have a legal strike. The same social rights led to the recent Alemo-Herron European Court decision (see Box, left), which broke the historic link to pay uplifts for outsourced workers. Without automatic uplifts, workers wanting wage increases will have to fight for them. And to do that they must be in the union. And to support its members in pay battles, the union must function as a workplace power and not an insurance club.
Workers in health are angry over the recent Pay Review Body decision, a mere 1 per cent, and the government’s response. Health workers have been further split by devolution, with the Welsh and Scottish assemblies offering the 1 per cent without strings. Unison has designated 5 June as a day of protest in the NHS as the start of a campaign to raise membership awareness and engagement with the union over pay.
That engagement has to overcome the obstacle that pay in the NHS has effectively not been bargained over since 1982. The first protest day will be followed by activities around the NHS birthday on 4 and 5 July. That could be combined with supportive protests on 10 July should the local government workers’ strike go ahead.
Unison health workers are likely to be balloted for industrial action in the autumn. Other health trade unions are likely to be supportive even if they do not have provision in their rules for industrial action. That group includes the Royal College of Nursing and smaller NHS professional organisations.
Health workers recognise that the financial crisis in the NHS, orchestrated and constructed by the government, means that a protracted campaign over pay and saving the NHS needs to be developed between now and the general election in May 2015 and sustained beyond that.
The government doesn’t need to privatise the NHS as such. Its manipulation of funding, its outsourcing of contract procurement, and the way it plays off Trust against Trust and community provision against acute provision, all contribute to an ever-widening state of chaos and collapse.
The government would then wash its hands of the NHS and let the free for all or free-fall which will follow from their market economics destroy the NHS. Harnessing the anger over pay and the anger over the continuous government attacks on the NHS means a reassertion of the concept of “National” in the title of the service. National as in one pay system; national as opposed to competing trusts; national in the quality of care across the whole of Britain.
Health workers have to make healthcare provision and the preservation of the National Health Service impossible for politicians to oppose, especially for the government, as Britain nears the general election. Every extended waiting list, every nightmare story of failed quality care, every decision to deride skill and proper and adequate staffing ratios, every decision to not pay the rate for the job by lowering pay bands, has to land on the Secretary of State for Health’s desk. ■