By Pat Murphy
All the main public-sector unions have now taken some sort of position in favour of united industrial action to force pay rises at least matching inflation and to break the two per cent limit decreed by Gordon Brown for both 2007-8 and 2008-9.
The question now is, who will take the initiative to turn this talk into action?
In June 2006 Gordon Brown promised that he would peg increases in the public sector pay bill to 2% over the next two years. This is a year-on-year promise to cut real pay for millions of workers. With inflation currently running at nearly 5%, two per cent means a real pay cut of 3%, and more for some public sector workers now paying increased pension contributions.
Going round the unions, the picture is this.
The PCS civil service union called a second one-day strike over pay, jobs, and conditions on 1 May, and has a live ballot mandate for further action. According to insiders, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka is the prime mover in pushing for a formal commitment from all the unions to united action on pay.
The civil service is split into nearly 200 bargaining units, with different settlement dates (mostly between June and August), but PCS has an official across-the-board demand for a pay rise at least matching inflation.
However, the majority on the PCS executive is aligned with the Socialist Party, famous for applying the adage “keep your powder dry” to many, many calls for industrial action. PCS insiders say that the SPers are nervous of action on pay. They insist that PCS alone — despite its hundreds of thousands of members — cannot win on pay.
The Independent Left grouping in PCS, which includes Workers’ Liberty activists, argues that the union should prepare for selective action in key sections, backed by a national levy, instead of being stuck in the alternative between widely-spaced one-day strikes (tokenistic) and all-out indefinite strike action (not possible in the calculable future).
In their statement after the 1 May action, Serwotka and PCS president Janice Godrich did not strike a militant note, or suggest further action beyond an overtime ban. “The government needs to sit down with us and negotiate a reasonable outcome to our demands on jobs, pay and conditions”.
After Brown’s repeated insistence on the two per cent limit, the unions will have to push the Government into much more strenuous bodily contortions than merely sitting down in order to get a decent pay rise.
However, if another union ballots for action, then, so PCS insiders say, they will find PCS willing to strike alongside them.
The annual conference of the National Union of Teachers, at Easter, carried a motion calling for united industrial action. The last teachers’ pay settlement covered two years (2006-8) and was 2.5% each year.
Within this settlement was a trigger mechanism which allowed the union to seek a review if inflation rose a trigger point. The NUT has requested a review; the School Teachers Review Body (STRB) has agreed to pass this request on to Education Secretary Alan Johnson.
If Johnson rejects the request, that could become the basis of a dispute between the NUT and other teacher unions and the government.
NUT has a pay policy for a rise of 10% or £3000, whichever is greater, and the abolition of some higher-paid special pay scales in favour of a single progression-based scale. The union has yet to decide what its demand will be in the pay review now under consideration.
According to teacher activists, there is more anger in the schools about workload and about the introduction soon of performance-related pay mechanisms than the overall pay formula. Without doubt, however, action called by the NUT on the general issue of pay will be welcomed by teachers as a chance to express their discontent, and will provide a good springboard for local action on workload.
The health workers’ sector of the public service Unison held its conference on 22-24 April, and decided unanimously to reject both the “staging” of the 2.5% pay formula produced by the pay review bodies (into two stages, April and November, thus reducing the value of the rise to 1.9%), and the 2.5% figure itself.
The union will go back to the pay review boards with its full claim, which includes a pay rise matching inflation and the abolition of the lowest pay scale.
As recently as March, the Unison health leadership were claiming that there was no feeling in the membership for any action on any issue beyond the “staging”, and in past years they have dismissed the possibility of industrial action to improve pay review board findings.
At the conference they had shifted a long way. There is a lot of anger among rank and file health workers about pay. Whether the leadership acts on the conference policy is now the question.
The Royal College of Nursing, a more conservative organisation for nurses, but one which has shifted in recent years to become something like a union, has voted for strike action to oppose the 2.5% staged rise for nurses, though with the emphasis on the staging.
The GMB union has announced that its members in the health service have voted 74% to support strike action over pay, and 91% to support industrial action short of strikes.
Unison’s demand for its other main body of public sector workers, in local government, is a 5% increase or £1000. On 20 March the employers offered 2%, and the unions rejected that. The settlement date was 1 April.
Oxford City Unison has sent a motion to the Unison local government Executive demanding an immediate ballot for action.
A complication in local government is that April 2007 was also the final date for negotiating new pay structures under the “single status” agreement (bringing white-collar and blue-collar workers into a single pay structure) made as long ago as 1997.
In some local authorities, “single status” deals were agreed a while back. In some others, negotiations continue, and the April 2007 deadline is being dealt with by an agreement to backdate whatever is negotiated to that date. In yet others, new “single-status” pay arrangements come into force this year. Unison local government activists say it is very difficult to get an overview of the picture across all the country’s local authorities, and the Unison leadership is not providing information.
Some local government workers, however, are losing out under “single status”, and are even worse hit by the two per cent limit than public service workers in general.
The union leaders are due to formally discuss all this at the Public Services Liaison Group in the TUC on 15 May.
However, it would be foolish to rely on the General Secretaries to do the right thing, least of all when they are meeting under the auspices of strike-stifler-in-chief and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber.
To get action, it is important to broaden the discussion out to wider layer of the workforce.
Every public sector worker knows, without need for PowerPoint presentations and jargon-filled briefings, that Brown’s two per cent limit will mean a real pay cut for them, with similar to follow next year. But many workers, and even many active union members, still do not know what their unions’ official demands are, or what their unions’ policies are on united action.
Activists need to make the arguments about pay are heard and read and debated in every workplace — starting right now.
In each union, we have to press for that union to take the initiative, and to be willing to go ahead with only one other union striking on the same day, or even on its own. Moving at the pace of the slowest is a recipe for arriving nowhere.
Activists in NUT, for example, are arguing for those unions most likely and willing to initiate action on pay to held joint special meetings of their Executives, organise joint rallies locally and regionally, and produce joint leaflets on public sector pay and public services.
In some areas there are moves to form local public sector alliances. These alliances plainly cannot sustain momentum week-after-week on a mere hope of joint strike action on pay, but there is a tremendous amount they can do on health cuts, academies, council housing, and other issues, while also building up solidarity on pay.