GEORGE OSBORNE’S announcement in the Budget speech that the government wants to move to regional pay rates is a simple attempt to drive down wages even further. Public sector workers have had pay frozen for two years under the Coalition (and the tail end of Brown’s government). They now face that being extended for the next two years, in effect, by 1 per cent wage increases, no wage increases, or wage cuts. Some public sector workers, for example firefighters following on from their disastrous campaign in 2006, have effectively had a pay freeze for the past five years.
The implied abandonment of national bargaining for terms and conditions for public sector workers is a double-edged sword. Such a move in the early 1980s was rapidly shelved. Today a significant number of south of England Tory councils that have abandoned national terms and conditions still have to shadow national agreements or even pay more. But public sector employers will undoubtedly seek to drive down already depressed wage rates in areas of sustained and systemic unemployment and it will take time to regroup battered trade union organisation not only to resist but to go onto the offensive.
Trade union density and organisation is at its lowest ever in the private sector. There is the need to develop a strategy of reconquering that lost ground. Reconquering it not through inter-union squabbles, take-overs or back-room agreements with the employer made without reference to the workers involved. Reconquering has to be through a genuine organising campaign, one that brings about a change in workers’ thinking to put collectivity back centre stage.
Public service workers similarly are going to have to think through a strategy over pay to overcome fragmentation of workplaces and bargaining units, massive privatisation and outsourcing, and changes to funding that give the privatised sector the whip hand. As the public sector moves provision of public services into the private sector, one obvious lesson is going to stare us in the face. Private sector provision of public services will be solely about profits. They will not be able to hide their bloated and stolen billions. We have to target our share through future wage fights. Redistribution of wealth starts with fighting for wages, not tinkering with tax rates.
The way our unions organise and function will likewise have to change. Everything will be centred on the workplace, we have to be embedded in work: organisation in the workplace is primary. A study of the resurgence, growth and effectiveness of the rail unions post-privatisation would be a valuable exercise.
We have a choice: reorganise, restructure, re-establish ourselves in the private sector – or die. Fighting for wages is the first step for that resurgence. ■