By a Unison member
Hundreds of thousand of local government workers are due out on strike on 16 and 17 July in a dispute over pay. Both Unison, the largest local government union, and Unite are taking action. Members of PCS (civil servants) from the Driving Standards Agency, Home Office and Passport Agency will also be taking action on the same day. Unfortunately the other large union, the GMB, have accepted the deal currently on offer of 2.45% not because they think it’s a good deal, they say, but because members cannot afford to take strike action.
But the current offer is just over half the rate of inflation which now stands at 4.3% representing a significant pay cut for members in the next year with inflation likely to rise higher.
For once Unison have put a lot of central effort into building the action and Dave Prentis, the general secretary, has promised Unison will take the lead in breaking the governments pay limit for the public sector.
The current action does not involve Scotland but a separate ballot is now underway and is likely to lead to action. In Scotland the offer is a slightly better 2.5% but the unions are claiming 5% or £1,000 to make up for below inflation rises in previous years. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland Unison’s claim has been 6% or 50p an hour.
Local government is the worst paid part of the public sector with 250,000 of the 600,000 balloted by Unison earning less than £6.50 an hour and 75% of them women. This is the very group who are most severely hit by increasing inflation in fuel, food and housing costs. The New Statesman estimates that a single-parent council worker on such a pay rate, with one school-aged child and needing a couple of hours’ cheap childcare a day, would at current pay levels be entitled to roughly £5,000 in Working Tax Credit a year highlighting the dependence of many workers on additional benefits to survive.
This is a fight to maintain an already impoverished standard of living and to keep up with prices. Yet the government which claims to prioritise tackling poverty have been quick to condemn the strikers. Once again they have said public sector pay rises will fuel inflation. Many economists and the TUC agree there is no truth in that and its often profiteering by the big oil, energy and food companies that are responsible for the price hikes.
With further threats to pay and job security via cost cutting “efficiency drives” and the imposition of Single Status Agreements that again drive down wages, local government workers need to see through this fight to a successful conclusion.
The initial two day action will need to be followed up with selective strikes and further all out strike days. Ongoing local strike committees will be needed to keep workers informed and the momentum for action going. Unison should learn the lessons of recent disputes including the pensions strike and not abandon action for the promise of talks or the lure of a legal route. The membership of our union mobilised remains its core strength and they should be able to hold the leadership to a course of struggle that may mean escalating action through the summer months.
The cost of failure would not just be the loss of wages but a further loss of confidence in collective action and the need for union organisation. After the summer there is a real possibility of linking up with other unions in joint action across the public sector. The NUT is likely to ballot again over pay, and the civil servants are due to strike. In the NHS, Unison say they will seek to reopen pay negotiations in light of rising inflation and are prepared to take industrial action to back up their claim. That would be a hugely significant shift from the leadership, from their position of only a few months ago when they told health workers they were getting a good deal and forced through acceptance.
The chances of all this coming together in a general strike of public sector workers to beat the pay cuts is still small. But the growing movement of anger in workplaces can be organised to press the individual leadership of the different unions to make real their talk of unity. Local activists can create the basis for such co-ordination through the creation of local Public Sector Alliances which in some places have been in existence for over a year already.
On 16 and 17 July there is a need for other unions not directly involved in the dispute to demonstrate their solidarity by sending delegations and banners to the rallies and marches that are being held throughout the country.
In local government branches the opportunity is to make the strike days as active as possible, getting strong picket lines and demonstrations of support from the membership. Moving quickly afterwards branches should call activists and stewards meetings to engage those active in building the action into ongoing strike committees that can start to formulate the next steps in the fight.
For details of local activity and how you can get involved see the main Unison website: www.unison.org.uk.