On 6 October Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, announced that he was writing to the public sector salary review bodies calling on them to “freeze the pay of 40,000 senior public servants in 2010-11. And he recommended that about 700,000 middle-ranking public servants, including doctors, dentists and prison officers, get a rise of between 0 per cent and 1 per cent”.
Later the same day shadow Chancellor George Osborne announced the Tories' pay freeze. In 2011 he wants all public sector workers, except for those earning less than £18,000 a year, to have their pay frozen.
The pay freeze plans mean that in the run-up to an election both Darling and Osborne want to seem "tough" on the Government's budget deficit, and are happy about making public sector workers bear the brunt of that "toughness".
Neither of them wants to tax the rich to make good the gap, neither of them is willing to dare say that in fact the budget deficit could continue for a while without disaster (though it arguably could), and Osborne wants to show that he will move to cut the deficit quicker and more harshly than Darling.
Beyond that the details of their plans are unclear. Also unclear so far is the trade-union response.
The Treasury website carries no detail at all of Darling's pay freeze plan. Does he intend to squeeze the "Treasury remit" for civil service pay? Is he just going to recommend to pay review bodies that they freeze pay or limit rises, or will he refuse to abide by pay review body recommendations if they do not comply?
Does a pay freeze mean no increase in existing pay schedules, or a freeze on existing workers receiving the "increments" they would normally get?
The BBC says that “Mr Darling's announcement does not affect teachers, nurses and police officers who are still subject to three year pay deals which come to an end next year. A Treasury source told the BBC the pay freeze will override the final year of a three-year pay deal for senior public sector workers. This means the salary rise expected next summer by GPs, judges, NHS managers and the heads of quangos will not now go ahead”.
Osborne's announcement raises similar questions. Will he suspend the pay review bodies and replace them by a compulsory freeze? Will he suspend the current pay-negotiation system in the civil service (something like 200 different bargaining units), which the Government officially says is outside Government control?
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: ""Rather than playing the disgraceful political game of who can be the toughest, the government and the Conservatives should be dealing with the gross unfairness and inequality of pay in the civil service and its related bodies".
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, reacting to the Tory pay plan on his union's website, says “The Tories have shown that the only time they are able to take tough action is when squeezing every last penny from the working classes.” Of course, when the Labour Party does the same thing Prentis is not so forthright! But if this declaration means that Prentis and other Labour-affiliated union leaders will act to defend their members' standards of living – if cut by the Tories - then that is good. We shall see.
Public sector workers, except for those at the top, have seen their pay squeezed over the last few years. Unison had nothing much to say about it.
Whether we are to have a Labour pay freeze, a Tory pay freeze, or Labour or Tory not-quite-freeze, we need a fighting rank and file response.