By Tom Unterrainer
Unions of teachers, health workers, and civil service workers are all moving towards strikes to challenge Gordon Brown’s decree for pay cuts in the public sector.
On 17 April, the conference of the Royal College of Nursing voted by 95% to take nationwide industrial action for the first time since the RCN was set up in 1916.
The GMB union reported that its members in the health service had voted 74% to support strike action over pay, and 91% to support industrial action short of strikes.
At the conference of the National Union of Teachers, over the Easter weekend, the union Executive put a priority motion calling for preparations for a ballot on national industrial action. The motion called for a “joint campaign of opposition at national and local levels”, opening up the possibility of a general strike across the public sector.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service workers’ union, was invited to speak at the opening session of the NUT conference. He got a standing ovation when he referred to the strikes that PCS has already called - it has set strike action (on jobs as well as pay) for 1 May - and called for a cross-union campaign.
The NUT Executive motion originally referred to unions coordinating action only through the TUC - opening the prospect that TUC general secretary Brendan Barber could stifle these moves for action, as he has stifled others - but was successfully amended (on the suggestion of Workers’ Liberty members) to remove the idea of unions working together exclusively through the TUC.
At the health sector conference of the biggest health service union, Unison, on 22-24 April, emergency motions from Leicester and other branches will call for industrial action on pay.
Joint strike action across schools, the civil service, and the health service will be the biggest industrial action in Britain for many years. It will be a drastic remobilisation of the idea of solidarity - the basic idea of workers in different workplaces and industries acting together to help their common working-class interests against their common capitalist enemy, be it private boss or government.
It will be a major step forward for the whole labour movement. Activists are already starting work to build momentum and to make links between the different unions at local level. One starting point will be solidarity work around the PCS strike on 1 May.
In spring 2005, the public sector unions talked about united industrial action over the cuts in public-sector pensions then being pushed through by the Government. In the end, the union leaders went for a rotten deal, and there was no action.
Brown’s pay limit is now biting harder because many public-sector workers are having to pay additional pension contribution (for no extra benefits). In the NHS, the proposed settlement on outstanding unsocial hours payments under Agenda for Change will also leave some staff worse off.
All this comes from the Government trying to squeeze public-sector pay - and jobs - so that it can afford to continue to cut corporate tax rates, to keep tax rates low for the rich, and to spend billions on the Iraq war.
In November 2005 Gordon Brown decreed that public-sector pay rises should be limited to 2%. In May 2006 he stated that the 2% limit should operate through to 2009. On 1 March 2007 he vetoed full implementation of official pay review board decisions for doctors, nurses, prisons officers and senior civil servants, insisting that rises be staged, with a 1.7 per cent increase from April and a 2.2 per cent increase from November, producing an average of 1.9 per cent for the year.
Year-on-year inflation as measured by the retail price index is now 4.6% and rising, so Brown’s limit means a clear pay cut in real terms.
Pay anniversary dates for most of the civil service (there are nearly 200 different pay bargaining units in it) are mostly between June and August. Teachers are currently in a two-year pay settlement ending September 2008; the NUT is demanding that this settlement be reopened because of rising inflation.
Will working-class solidarity be “born again” through joint action against Brown’s pay squeeze? Activists should do all we can to make sure it is.