Resist the 3-year public sector pay cut!

Submitted by martin on 8 January, 2007 - 11:16 Author: Colin Foster
Pay cut

In 2008-11, public sector workers across the board face three years of real wage cuts. The Government is determined to limit public sector pay rises to around 2%, and wants to clamp that limit in to three-year deals, while inflation (RPI) is still running at 4.2%. How can public sector workers reinvigorate the idea of trade-union solidarity across different trades and unions on this issue?

The public services union Unison estimates that since April 2004 the accrued increase in local government pay stands at 11.4%. Over the same period prices have risen by 12.5%, and average earnings across the whole economy by 13.4%.

Local government can not be untypical of the public sector. Now the Government wants to set the wage loss in stone by insisting on three-year deals - at a low rate - for local government and health, and civil service sectors, this year. In local government and health, a wish from the employers for three-year deals was already flagged up in 2007. In the explanations from Unison union leaders about why they support the "Pay Review Body" for health workers, that Body is supposed to have the virtue of being "independent"; but now it has been told by the Treasury to deliver a three-year formula.

On Sunday 16 December AWL members from different public sector unions discussed strategy. This is a summary of conclusions, subject to corrections, amendments, and additions. It has been updated with new information received since 16 December.

Our first conclusion is that we should not get buried in the details and limits of feasible string-pulling to elicit action from the different public sector unions. The AWL's primary task is (as Marx put it) "in the various stages of development which the struggle of working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through... always and everywhere to represent the interests of the movement as a whole... to point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat independently of all nationality..." - rather than to pull strings on which we (as yet a relatively small organisation) do not have much pulling power anyway.

Basic, unifying, long-term demands

Different sections of the public sector have different pay structures, different negotiating systems, different detailed concerns. That sort of "sectionalism" is inherent to wage-bargaining under capitalism. It can be mitigated, but not abolished at will. As Karl Marx put it: "The cry for an equality of wages rests... upon a mistake, is an insane wish never to be fulfilled..."

In the AWL conference document of 2006, we concluded that: "Each AWL fraction should make sure it is visible in its union and sector as the advocate of... a class line, which in the present situation revolves around two main themes, levelling up pay and conditions and organising the unorganised".

In the public sector we should argue for coordination beyond practical things like dates of ballots. The basic touchstone should be a campaign for above inflation pay rises across the sector (i.e. a "sliding scale of wages" agreement) and an agreed minimum wage.

We have to politically rearm as well as help to reorganise and renew the trade union movement. We argue for standardised pay rises matching and beating inflation, against both regional bargaining and "performance-related pay".

We also argue for unions to work for a common settlement date across the public sector, and against multi-year deals, which ensure that only a limited fraction of workers can move in each year, so that the full strength of the unions is deployed together. At present the Treasury gives its remit for civil service pay, its budgets for health and local government, etc., in a coordinated way each year, but the unions fight (or don't fight) separately.

At present, even within Unison, health and local government pay both run from April to March, but the two sections don't put claims in at the same time, and they don't give the Government and employers a common timescale to respond.

Civil service bargaining units differ - there are 241 of them.ost settlement dates are between April and August. Many have multi-year deals, on different cycles. Teachers are September (it used to be April, but shifted a few years back). Further education is July.

One of the ideas that AWL activists have raised within PCS is that the union should seek disputes over the Treasury remit, i.e. the overall guidance the Treasury gives to the 241 bargaining units. Why not extend that idea outside the civil service? Of course, we are not strong enough to win it this year, but we will never be strong enough to win unless we start arguing for it sometime.

Of course, any general theme we argue isn't going to supersede the actual union claims, which in most cases other than for local government are already in. But, in the background of what we say about on specific deals, we have an overarching commitment to levelling up wages and conditions - including for the "private sector" workers within the public sector, that is, contracted-out workers such as ancillaries, cleaners, and so on, who are often a lot worse off than public sector workers.

So: sliding scale; minimum of £8 an hour; bring contracted-out workers onto public-sector pay and conditions; common settlement dates; no multi-year deals.

Fight now! Don't wait!

In 2007, AWL put much emphasis on organising local public-sector union solidarity committees, where possible through Trades Councils.

Rebuilding and reviving Trades Councils is a key task. But we would deceive ourselves if we suggest that local solidarity committees are the key lever to get coordinated union action in 2008.

We cannot rely on the national union leaders to coordinate action. The experience of 2007 shows that, however much they talk about it, they are reluctant to do anything to bring it about. In their discourse, coordinated action remains a good idea for an ideal future moment unlikely to arrive - and, sometimes, an excuse for not doing anything now, short of that ideal future.

The Observer of 16/12/07 reported: "The TUC will launch Speak Up for Public Services in London on Tuesday to campaign against the government's target of 2 per cent pay rises across the public sector, resulting in pay increases below inflation for hundreds of thousands of workers". It reads well, but in reality this an ongoing campaign which had a lobby of parliament last January. The TUC website gives no indication of any further action, or indeed of any campaigning beyond bland press releases.

Thus we want rank-and-file link-ups across unions and sectors to put pressure on the leaders and to mobilise independently.

But there is a Catch-22 here. In anything like current circumstances, even modestly lively local solidarity committees, like the one in Leeds this autumn, will draw in workers outside the diehard left only when there are signals of ferment or activity over pay in those workers' unions. In other words, for local rank-and-file link-ups to gain life there has to be already at least some ferment in a number of different sectors, roughly simultaneous if not actually coordinated.

It is not possible to get that ferment by first forming the cross-union local committees. The call for local solidarity committees will "go live" when there is that more-or-less simultaneous ferment.

Coldly considered, as one PCS activist put it, the tasks of fighting for coordinated union action on public sector pay in 2008 are "incredibly difficult". The strongest section of public sector workers, the postal workers, have been taken out by a (bad) multi-year deal; the unions generally are in a worse shape after the setbacks of 2007.

Nevertheless, there are some openings and signs of life; and in any case, it is our task to develop and argue a political line which - even if it can't win a majority, even if we calculate in advance that it has no chance of winning a majority - can educate those workers we can reach in a class approach.


School teachers are the closest to action at present.

The pay review body (STRB) sent to the Government on 26 October its recommendation on a pay settlement to run for three years from September 2008. (The three-year term was already in place before the Government's recent announcement). The Government, unusually, has taken a long time about responding. Theoretically the Government can accept the STRB recommendation or pay more or pay less. According to NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott, speaking at an NUT Divisional Secretaries' meeting on 9 January, the Government has to go public on the report by the end of January at latest.

The EIS (Scottish teachers' union) has accepted a three year deal of 2.5%, 2.5%, 2.3%. Teachers in England will almost certainly be offered less.

NUT Executive policy is to ballot for discontinuous strike action if the Government does not grant an increase catching up with inflation. The Left won a narrow majority, on the Exec, against general secretary Steve Sinnott, to make it "discontinuous action" rather than a single one-day strike.

Sinnott had previously pencilled in 30 January for a one-day strike. After the Government's delay, any action will certainly be later than that.

The Guardian on 9 January reported that "teaching units are expecting an offer of 2.1% over threee years coming in from September". The figure seems to be based on the general level of the Government's grant settlement for local government, rather than on any more specific "inside information" from the pay review body.

If the NUT Exec sticks to its policy as discussed up to now, then the NUT will ballot for action. The earliest possible action will be late February, after half-term, which is around the second week of February.

There is still, of course, a danger that the right will oppose action when it comes to the crunch, or that NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott will limit the action to a one-off one-day protest. AWL will press for it to be discontinuous action, and at as quick a tempo as possible. That might mean two strikes before the end of term (just before Easter), and further strikes from April.

NUT activists say:

  • The union has done a lot of campaigning in the schools on pay;
  • Teachers in the schools are more agitated about workload issues than about pay, but will probably respond to the chance to express a national protest by strike action over pay;
  • It would not make sense to delay NUT action in 2008 in order to increase the chances of coinciding with other sectors. If the pay settlement announced by the Government is allowed by delay to come to appear an "accomplished fact", that will undermine mobilisation.

NUT pay policy is for an increase of 10% or £3000, plus reduction of differentials through such things as establishing a "single spine" for the pay structure. It is not clear what the exact demand will be over which members may be ballotted for strike action. The demand is on the Government as the body which decides teachers' pay, although there exists no procedure for the union to negotiate with the Government over pay.

NUT conference is at Easter (weekend of 23 March). Motions have already been submitted from branches. In January branches vote on which motions to prioritise, i.e. get to the actual conference floor. Then in February they consider amendments to the prioritised motions.

Because of this schedule it is common practice to submit "holding motions", with the sharp edges of their content being supplied by subsequent amendments. There is a holding motion from the left with (oddly) a call for a ballot on action over pay "before Christmas 2008"; obviously it will have to be amended.

Further education

The lecturers' union UCU is advocating common action with the NUT.

UCU reports: "Branches are now preparing for a national ballot of FE members on taking industrial action... The intention at this stage is to look to ballot members in January to reject the pay offer and take industrial action in the following month.

"It is hoped that this will coincide with a NUT ballot".

That applies to England; Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have different negotiating structures. The other complication is that, according to UCU: "The Association of Colleges (AoC)... negotiates with UCU and other recognised trade unions to produce recommendations on pay and conditions for individual colleges to adopt... Pay can vary considerably between colleges".

"In summary, the AoC's final pay recommendation is:

  • 2% on all salaries and allowances from 1 August 2007
  • A further 1% from 1 February 2008.

"A national conference of FE branch representatives from across the country, held in October 2007, said that the offer was 'insulting', and amounts to a pay cut".

According to UCU insiders, on candid assessment the UCU's position is weak. The AoC formula has already been imposed by many colleges; union organisation in the colleges is weak; the top union officials do not want action.

Again, one AWL member working in Further Education reports that her college management usually takes the AoC's figure as a "maximum" for pay in the college. The pay settlement date in the college has been shifted to 1 January, and the college bosses' line this year is that they won't even consider making any offer at all - still less the full AoC figure which UCU has called "insulting" - until the end of January.

However, a ballot and action alongside the NUT could get a significantly better turnout than action by the UCU on its own.

In Higher Education UCU has accepted a settlement for 2006-9.

Civil service

Next up is the civil service. AWL activists in the PCS suggest that if school teachers do go ahead with discontinuous action, and even more so if further education lecturers go with them, that will create a basis for arguing in the PCS for the union's campaign for "national pay" - i.e. for levelling up to common rates across the civil service's 241 different pay bargaining units - to be refreshed or resurrected.

AWL members in the PCS have won policy at PCS conferences that the union should take action over the "Treasury remit" - the budget envelope which the Treasury gives each February as guidance to all civil service bargaining for the coming financial year. The union has not done that.

AWL PCS activists suggest that the tactic for 2008 might be, if the teachers take discontinuous action, to press for PCS to revive or resuscitate its national campaign by action alongside the teachers. The demand of the action would be for national pay bargaining, national pay rates, harmonisation to those rates within three to five years, and increases at least matching inflation for all workers. It would be understood that the immediate concession that might be won on this would be an increase in the "Treasury remit" to allow movement towards those objectives.

PCS conference is 19-23 May, in Brighton. Branches must submit motions by 6 March. PCS has no provision for branches amending motions.

Issues which need to be raised at the conference include union action to secure common settlement dates for different bargaining units and opposition to multi-year deals.

The different pay bargaining units in the civil service have different settlement dates and different spans of multi-year deals.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the most militant section in the "civil service", is somewhat "out of it" for 2008, since it has had a three-year pay deal imposed in November 2007 (backdated to 1 July).

DWP workers struck on 6/7 December against that imposition. No further action has yet been announced beyond an overtime ban from 8 to 21 December, but it is possible. The union's official stance now is:

"PCS has demanded that management withdraw the second and third years of the 3 year offer and commence immediate negotiations on making the offer acceptable.

"PCS urges management to take up the offer of talks offered by ACAS".

The biggest pay settlement within the civil service to come up in 2008 is in Revenue and Customs (HMRC). A three-year pay settlement there ends in June 2008, and a new settlement is due from 1 July. HMRC workers have the highest union density in the civil service, and (unlike some other sectors of the civil service) sizeable economic clout.

PCS is balloting between 7 and 23 January for strike action in HMRC - not over pay, but over jobs, and specifically over closures of rural offices. If HMRC workers strike, it will probably be on 31 January, a date chosen as the busiest day of the tax year.

Last year PCS called two one-day strikes, on 31 January and 1 May, over jobs but also for national pay. However, after 1 May the Exec went for a lengthy "consultation exercise", and then for a further "consultative ballot". Once the ballot returned a clear majority for further national action, the Exec (on 1 November) suspended all such action on the grounds that the Government was allegedly showing some signs of movement in negotiations.

However, since Left Unity won control of the PCS Exec in 2003, pay inequalities in the civil service have increased, and the number of different bargaining units has increased.

A new approach is needed to reverse that trend.


Unison Health has submitted a claim for the next settlement, due in April, for:

  • scrapping Band 1 (the lowest pay band);
  • an "above inflation" pay rise for all;
  • a cut in working hours from 37.5 to 35.

The pay rates are set by an official Pay Review Body which will report in February. The Government can then decide on a settlement higher or lower than the PRB recommendation. In 2007 the Government decided to "stage" the PRB's 2.5% recommendation, i.e., in effect, to reduce it to 1.9%.

There was a debate at last year's Unison Health conference about the PRB. We argued for Unison to support collective bargaining for all health workers, but the conference decision was for all health workers to be brought under the PRB.

Unison leaders have promised a faster tempo on pay in 2008, for both health and local government. It remains to be seen whether they will deliver.

The health Pay Review Body is due to report in February. We need motions from Unsion branches to the Unison Health Service Group Executive as soon as PRB reports, insisting that the union make demands on the Government to vary the award upwards and to reject a multi-year formula.

The top Unison officials have made it clear that they will want to "respect the integrity of the PRB", i.e. accept any Pay Review Board finding straight away, if only the Government will pay it in full. But it is already clear from the Government's general policy, and from the Government's NHS Budget plans, that the Government will not willingly pay more than about 2%, and will instruct the PRB to propose a three-year deal.

Unison health conference comes soon after, 14-16 April. There is a left-wing motion on pay in from the East Midlands, demanding an uplift of bottom pay rates, etc. rather than a plea for the "independence" of the PRB; a call on the Government to over-rule PRB and uplift higher; and demanding the Service Group Executive ballot for industrial action in support of this dispute. The motion sets a deadline of June for moving to industrial action.

The motions will be circulated early in January, and amendments have to be in by 15 February.

The question of deadlines and tempo is important because in 2007, talks on both health and local government pay dragged on for months after the settlement date in April, despite the Government making it clear that it would talk about only minute marginal adjustments.

Ballots were held in the autumn; health workers accepted the Government deal, and local government workers voted against strike action on their offer, largely because many workers preferred to get money in their pockets immediately, from the back-dated element of even a poor pay rise, rather than get nothing immediately and stick out for what the union leadership told them was only a slight chance of a slightly better deal later.

Despite that, many health workers are reported to be dissatisfied and angry with the pay deal, even if they voted for it.

There is also the question of agitating and organising among ancillary (contracted-out) workers for them to be lifted up to NHS pay rates.

There is a "framework agreement" nationally which says that some contracted-out staff should get NHS rates. But it is not an enforceable agreement. NHS Trusts have to volunteer the money to contractors to uplift the pay

AWL activists in Unison in have succeeded in getting the Trust to pay part of the deal, but not as fast as it should be. The Union branch has recruited well out of it. Some other places (Aintree, East London) have had strikes and won the full deal. Many have done nothing.

The problem is that the setup now requires local Unison branches to run local campaigns on this issue, and many branches are simply not up to it - because of lack of activists, or because of lack of interest in the conditions of the contracted-out workers.

Despite ancillary workers having been generally the backbone of NUPE organisation in the Health Service before the merger that formed Unison, the union has waged no systematic campaign to organise and win improvements for the ancillary workers.

We should argue for Unison to campaign for an enforceable national agreement to get contracted-out workers NHS rates, and to launch an organising drive among contracted-out workers on that basis.

Local government

The relevant Unison committee has proposed a claim (from April 2008) for a 6% increase, with a minimum wage of £6.75 per hour. The committee is due to finalise the claim on 10 January.

Unison local government conference is 15-16 June, and the deadline for motions to it is 22 February. The amendments deadline is by April, but there is no need to wait that long to know that the Government will not willingly offer more than about 2%. The Government has already set its local government budget for 2008-9.

We need motions that mandate Unison to ballot immediately then (in June, i.e. on the same deadline as we are proposing for health) if there is no satisfactory settlement by then.
A significant warning to local government workers about the intentions of Unison officialdom comes from the probation sector. Unison members in probation are part of the local government "service group" of the union, although their pay is entirely separate, negotiated by Unison and Napo (the probation officers' union) more or less directly with the Treasury. They have just come out of a three year pay deal, and a claim is now due for April 2008.

In November there was a national activists' forum, the first in five years, where pay was discussed.

The union full timer argued strongly for a pitiful claim and another three-year deal.

An AWL activist presented argued that co-ordinated action should be the priority, and for that reason the union should only consider a one year pay deal.

The full-timer confused people (apparently successfully) by talking about co-ordinated action whilst actually advocating going for a three year deal which would be negotiated very soon i.e. taking the section out of any possibility of co-ordinated action even within Unison for three years!

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