As we go to press (20 August 2008) a 24-hour strike action by local government workers, members of UNISON, UNITE, and the GMB is taking place.
The same day PCS members employed by the Scottish Government and Registers of Scotland, are staging a follow-up 24-hour strike.
Both strikes are about below-inflation pay offers for workers in the public sector.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has offered local authority workers a three-year pay-deal, with pay going up by just 2.5% each year.
Scottish Ministers have offered for Scottish government employees just 2%.
These pay offers represent a cut in real pay and standards of living — according to the Retail Price Index, inflation is now at 5% for the first time in 20 years.
But the real rate of inflation — especially for low paid workers, who spend a disproportionately large share of their income on consumer basics such as food and fuel — is far higher.
Gas prices are up by 35%, mortgage repayments are up by 8%, transport costs are up by 7%, and food is up by 6%, with the price of basic foodstuffs having increased by an even larger margin: bread and milk by 14%, butter by 31%, and eggs by 39%.
Hardly surprisingly, therefore, the industrial action ballots conducted among local government trade unionists produced overwhelming majorities in favour of strike action: 68% in UNITE, 70% in UNISON, and 74% in the GMB.
The local government trade unions are demanding 5% or £1,000 (whichever is the greater), another three days annual leave, and an additional public holiday. The PCS is demanding a 6% pay rise, and a bigger rise for the lowest paid.
But even the pay rises proposed by the unions themselves, which were drawn up at the turn of the year, would not protect members from pay cuts in real terms.
This Wednesday’s strike action will see joint-union rallies and demonstrations across Scotland and will mark the start of further industrial action in support of a pay rise for public sector workers which is not a pay cut.
PCS members are already staging an overtime ban and a work-to-rule. The 20 August strike will be followed by successive three-day strikes by different groups of workers, and further 24-hour all-out strikes.
The rank-and-file of the local government unions and the PCS need to ensure that further campaigning and industrial action is organised and co-ordinated at a local level by grassroots public sector alliances, consisting of workplace reps from the unions involved in the disputes. The National Shop Stewards Network in Scotland could play a pivotal role in initiating such local public sector alliances.
The pay campaign must be under the members’ control. Not only should any further pay offer be subject to a members’ ballot, so too should any proposal to call off the industrial action on the basis of an offer of further talks by the employers.
Where possible, action should also be co-ordinated with campaigning by public sector workers in the rest of the country. On one level, these disputes are specifically Scottish — given that the employers involved are COSLA and the Scottish Ministers. At the same time, they are also directed against the pay-cut policies which the Westminster Labour government wants to see imposed.