Industrial action over pay by the National Union of Teachers was one of the first casualties of the economic crisis. After winning a concrete mandate for action in a ballot, the union took a single day of action to demand the government meet a pay claim. When the union came to ballot for a second time, the turnout was lower and the majority in favour of action was paper thin. The dispute was called off.
According to reports from activists, union members were expressing “reservations” — even embarrassment — about demanding higher salaries when so many others were having their pay cut and jobs threatened. Similar stories and are emerging from other sections of the working class from people who have relative job security and relatively “good” salaries — on the London Underground for example.
Such sentiments are easily seized upon by the bosses, the capitalist press and government to dampen the prospect of a workers’ fight back over pay. We need to arm against the idea that wanting more pay is “shameful” in times of economic crisis. The money is there to pay us. We need the money. We can defend our jobs and our standard of living.
1. “Other workers are losing jobs … we should just be glad to have one”
Even in the most “secure” sectors of the workforce — the public and essential services, those with strong trade union representation — jobs are under threat. Local governments are faced with significantly reduced budgets. The bosses want to squeeze the maximum “efficiency” (to boost profits or make savings) out of workers. Even in secure jobs moves will be made to intensify our work, to get more out of us for the same money.
Workers who are losing their jobs are not some “alien tribe” from people in work. The jobless and those under threat of losing their jobs are the partners and dependents of other workers. When they lose their jobs, they rely on the income of those in work. If this income is already inadequate, if it’s been devalued during previous years of growth, then it needs to be increased.
2. “There’s no money to pay higher wages”
Really? No money? The government can find billions of pounds at the drop of a hat to bail out the British arm of the international banking system. They can afford to approve a gigantic salary (up to £15 million) to the new boss of RBS the bank the state mostly owns. But it cannot act to ensure workers in the private and public industries get a fair wage?
The bosses too can find the cash if needs be. London Underground bosses claim that a pay rise is unaffordable but at the same time fares have been increased and passenger numbers are on the rise. The company is still making a substantial turnover. Enough, in fact, to plough money into sorting out disastrous privatisation schemes.
3. “We’re already well-paid”
Not compared to our bosses, managers, government bureaucrats and the ministers who are urging wage restraint. In some parts of the country, London especially, the overall cost of living is still increasing. The economic crisis has not alleviated the stresses and strains of making ends meet, of getting by, for those workers who were struggling during the boom period.
4. “It’s the wrong thing to do … irresponsible … unpopular”
Is it really wrong for workers and their trade unions to continue the class struggle in times of economic crisis? Is it irresponsible of us to do more than wage defensive battles? How will the bosses see us if we sit on our hands? As in the right? As responsible?
No. They’ll see the working class and its organisations as weak.
And if they view us in this way, they’re unlikely to magically grant pay rises or other increased benefits or keep us in work. More likely, they’ll continue to attack wages and conditions in the expectation that nobody will put up a fight. We need to keep up the fight on our own terms if we are to secure bigger gains in the future.
5. “Prices are falling, deflation is a risk”
This is not universally true. Prices on things like flat-screen televisions, consumer electrics and other luxuries are falling. The essentials of everyday life are not falling in price. Food prices are still up 6.2% year-on-year according to the British Retail Consortium.
The pound is weak, making the cost of importing goods, services and materials more expensive. This added cost will soon find its way to the supermarket shelves and utility bills. House prices are falling, but this does not benefit those low-paid workers who pay already have a massive mortgage. As house prices continue to fall, workers who felt compelled to buy a home due to lack of social housing and exorbitant rental costs, falling into negative equity. More of repossessions could follow.
For these reasons alone, the trade unions should be putting the issue of pay back on the agenda. This should not be done within the same parameters used during the period of massive inflation, as with the clumsy approach of Unison who filed a claim for inflation-related wage increases just as inflation was edging towards 0%.
The labour movement needs to launch its own investigation into the real cost of living in the crisis, expose the cant about falling prices and make it clear to members that a sectional fight over wages can and should be generalised into other struggles. These battles are not about narrow self-interest, but are connected wider issues in the working class and with the battles to come.