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Back to Front - Get Serious


AS WE enter the fourth month of the TUC Public Sector Unions' campaign on pay there is a slow realisation that it is going to be protracted and with very few fireworks. Those who thought it was going to a grand heroic charge that would bring down the government's pay restraint policy have been proved very foolish. Those who saw it more as sabre-rattling are being proved correct.

Unison's local government pay battle plan has started to unravel at the first hurdle – branches asked to quantify what action they intend taking have significantly refused to respond. The national survey initiated by national office is nearly blank in response.

Admirable statements by trade union general secretaries over the obscenity of poverty pay, and detailed analysis showing government can afford to meet much-needed pay increases, do not replace the missing engagement from the members.

And yet the government must be challenged over pay. What other fundamental reason is there for trade unions to exist if not to fight to determine our wages? But where is the army? And where is the front?

Thirty years of pay research shows that decently paid, skilled staff who feel they have a future deliver higher-quality public services far better than under-paid, under-valued, temporary, casual, insecure staff. But many are also aware of the concerns and fears over employment stability – in Greater London agency and temporary staff employment in some local authorities runs at near to 1 in 4 of those employed.

The fact is that there is a malaise in the heart of the public services, especially local government, which actually does not believe there is a future except fragmentation, division, possible outsourcing or working at arm's length. The great Victorian concept of civic pride, civic dignity and public service is being eaten away from within by the rot of US-style market-driven Tammany Hall business concepts.

Local government workers are campaigning for a 'catch up and match up' – 6% or 50p an hour for the lowest paid. Grandiose plans have been drawn up to lodge claims across local government, community and voluntary public service providers. These plans see ever-growing groups of members bailing out of the planned strategy as either not applicable to them or they volunteer out of politeness to let someone else get stuck in first. This 'one size fits all' mantra beggars belief. Each group must fight on the particulars of their situation.

Either the public sector unions have never studied the history of the fight for wages in Britain or they completely miss the point. Unions that have traditionally negotiated solely according to national agreements have a mindset whereby substantial sections of the membership sit back, do nothing and wait for the national negotiators to deliver. In many ways their thinking and tactics are conditioned by the 'culture' of the employer and appear to be stuck in the 1970s. Those unions who fought on a localised guerrilla basis – primarily the engineering and manufacturing unions – were always more flexible in tactics and strategy.

The public sector tactics are stale: deliver a Valentine's Day card to Downing Street – the broken heart of the jilted public sector worker – first done 15 years ago and nearly every year since. Have photo opportunities. Carry long-winded and intricate motions at tiny meetings of activists.

How do we lift the goal and importance of wages? How to develop a protracted campaign among a membership who consciously forget their history. Are new to struggle or are they unwilling to struggle?

These are the challenges if the question of pay is going to be more than rhetoric. We lose ground every time our bluff is called. We have to get serious about pay.