The public sector strike on 10 July will be the biggest strike in Britain since the November 2011 strike over attacks to public sector pensions. Well over one million workers could take part.
At the heart of the dispute is the low pay epidemic which afflicts millions of workers in Britain. According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the cost of maintaining a decent standard of living in the UK has increased by 46% since 2008, while wages have only increased by 9%. A couple with children now need to earn £40,574 to maintain a minimum standard of living, compared to less than £28,000 in 2008.
According to TUC figures, around five million workers in Britain are paid less than a living wage, around 20% of the workforce. In some poorer areas of London, nearly 50% of workers are paid less than the amount even Tory mayor Boris Johnson’s office says is required to maintain a minimum standard of living. The 10 July strike can be the start of an ongoing working-class counter-offensive that challenges the capitalist logic that workers must continue to pay for the financial crisis by having our wages squeezed below inflation.
Workers in seven different unions will strike on 10 July. Unison, the country’s biggest public sector union, balloted around 500,000 members.
Britain’s single biggest union, Unite, balloted 70,000 of its public sector members for the strike, returning a 68% majority in favour of striking, and a 79% majority in favour of taking industrial action short of a strike.
The GMB union’s ballot returned a three-to-one majority on a 23% turnout.
A consultative ballot of Public and Commercial Service union (PCS) members on joining the strike returned a 74% majority on a 24% turnout. The PCS, along with the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), already has a live ballot mandate from an ongoing dispute which allows it to participate in the strike without formally re-balloting its membership.
Unite, GMB, and Unison balloted members employed by local councils and by local authority-controlled schools. The unions oppose local government employers’ offer of a 1% pay increase, and are demanding instead an across-the-board increase of £1 per hour, or an increase to the “Living Wage”, £7.65 (or £8.80 in London) — whichever is higher.
The demand is moderate, but it is at least a concrete demand that gives the dispute a defined aim. This is an advance on previous national disputes that have been reactive and posed no positive demands of their own.
Some workers in workplaces striking on 10 July, and equally affected by low pay, were not balloted: for example, Unite only balloted its members in local-authority schools and in large academy chains that peg their employees’ terms and conditions to nationally-negotiated agreements. Unions could have made the strike more solid in schools by balloting workers in other Academies and Free Schools for the demand that their employer signs up to the national agreement.
The PCS, NUT, and FBU’s pre-existing, ongoing disputes are about a range of issues. The PCS says it will strike to “break the pay freeze, and win a fair settlement on pay, jobs, pensions, outsourcing, and terms and conditions such as performance management .” The NUT’s dispute is over pay, pensions, and workload, although performance-related pay system the dispute aimed to block has already been introduced. Fire fighters have struck repeatedly in a dispute that aims to reverse an increase in their pension age to 60, and only allows them to retire at 55 if they are deemed “unfit”, thus losing access to up to 47% of their pension fund.
Workers involved in smaller, local disputes will also join the 10 July strike, such as RMT, TSSA, and Unite members employed by Transport for London, who have already struck several times as part of a dispute to stop the introduction of a performance-related pay scheme that would reduce their pension entitlement.
Workers’ Liberty members active in the unions striking on 10 July are arguing for the strike to be a launchpad for more action, not an end in itself.
To win living wages, unions will need to announce ongoing calendars of action that mobilise members on a basis that maximises participation and maintains continuous pressure on employers, rather than marching them up the hill for incidental strike days followed by months of silence while union officials take part in behind-closed-doors negotiations. This is the pattern that fatally undermined the 2011 pensions dispute. We cannot afford to repeat it.
The low turnout in most ballot results, particularly in Unison where just 14% of members voted, suggests widespread and understandable discouragement after years of wage freezes, squeezes, and austerity cuts.
Although union leaders talk about the need for more action in the autumn, workers are understandably far from enthused or empowered by the current “strategy”, which consists of a set-piece strike on 10 July with, as yet, no concrete action to follow until the TUC demonstration on Saturday 18 October.
Unison’s leaders have already talked about further strikes on 9 and 10 September. Definite dates in September should be agreed between the unions; and other actions should be planned between now and then to maintain levels of mobilisation and keep pressure on the employers.
Urgent steps should be taken to bring NHS workers, who are being denied even the meagre 1% pay increase recommended by the NHS Pay Review Body, into the dispute. Unison’s 2014 Health sector conference voted to ballot for strikes over pay: that vote should be acted on. Unite, GMB, and smaller NHS unions should ballot their memberships in the health sector too.
Local joint union committees, in some places already mobilising to build for 10 July, should continue meeting after 10 July, and the Executives of all the unions involved in the strike should hold joint meeting to discuss further action.
Meetings should be organised for the strike day itself. In 2011 activists in some cities successfully held strike day members’ meetings prior or after rallies. At these meetings members can discuss the dispute, and vote to express their views on what should be done next. Marches and rallies on strike days are important, but they must be accompanied by real meetings with real discussion, that make decisions.
Working-class confidence needs to be rebuilt, from the workplace up. That means regular workplace meetings, forming cross-union committees in each sector and locality, and developing ongoing strategies over which workers feel a sense of ownership. The strongest possible strike on 10 July can be the start of that rebuilding.
Real wages — the value of wages after inflation has been taken into account — have fallen sharply since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008.
They have dropped every quarter since the beginning of 2010, at an average of 2.2% a year, and have fallen for fourteen consecutive quarters.
Exactly how much you can say real wages have declined depends on the measures used to calculate, particularly, of inflation. The government’s preferred measure is the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which excludes housing costs. Historically the Retail Price Index has been used, and as that includes housing costs it is a more realistic measure of peoples’ living standards.
Using RPI figures, we can say that there has been the longest sustained fall in real wages since these figures started to be calculated. The only comparable drop in wage rates was at the time of the 1976 IMF crisis when real wages dropped nearly as much in a shorter period of five quarters. However real wages were rising at around 3% a year in the period around this drop. They were rising less strongly in the twenty years before the 2008 crash — 1.5% a year in the 1990s, falling to 1.2% a year in the 2000s.
On average, real wages are now at the same level as they were in 2003, an 8% fall. This fall is worse for young workers. According to figures from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, 18 to 24 year olds saw the biggest decline in pay — of 14% between 2008 and 2013, pushing their levels of pay back to those of 1998. The fall for the 25 to 29-year-old age group was also substantial. Real pay fell by 12%, taking wage levels back to that of 1999.
If real wages are calculated using CPI the picture is in some ways worse. This measure shows a decline in each of the twenty-three quarters from the third quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2014 (the most recent) apart from two.
Decrease have affected both private and public sector workers, although it has hit private sector workers somewhat more because many are working reduced hours. If and when a recovery comes, it is likely to leave public sector wages lower in comparison to the private sector. But the government’s Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that the earliest wage levels will return to their 2008 level will be 2018.
Meanwhile, according to the High Pay Centre, the average Chief Executive of a FTSE 100 company saw their pay increase by 5% from 2012 to 2013. Their pay is around 160 times that of the average worker, up from about fifty times average pay in 1998.
David Cameron has already promised that new anti-union laws will be in the Tories’ 2015 manifesto.
Specifically, a 50% minimum threshold for ballots (probably a 50% minimum turnout, but the Tories might go for requiring 50% of eligible voters for a valid majority). They want to introduce a new law that will require unions to re-ballot for every individual strike, rather than using a single ballot as a mandate for calling several strikes in an ongoing dispute.
The Tories want to further smash up the unions’ ability to organised timely and effective industrial action. That will take power away from union members, outlaw most strike action (something that should be a fundamental right) and into the hands of the state.
The labour movement needs to prepare a counter-offensive against such new anti-union laws and for a return to workplace ballots and a positive charter of workers’ and union rights.