IN THE WAKE OF JUNE’S GENERAL ELECTION, the issue of public sector pay - and its long-term decline - has leapt up the political agenda. A dramatically weakened Tory government is now hard pressed to maintain the 1% cap on pay for council workers, firefighters, NHS staff, teachers and many others working in public services. Given the continuation of the pay cap, praise from Tory politicians for firefighters and paramedics in the wake of terrorist attacks and the horror of Grenfell Tower seems especially cheap and hypocritical.
Across the public sector a combination of localised performance-related arrangements exists alongside a patchwork quilt of pay review bodies making recommendations within government constraints. Estimates vary substantially about the scale of pay erosion, but using the Retail Price Index to measure inflation over the period between 2010 and 2016, then a public sector worker currently on £30,000 a year has effectively lost £4,816 in real terms in that period. Assuming that inflation rates continue to rise between now and 2020, the real pay loss would be close to £10,000.
Local government is the only significant component of the public sector where some semblance of national collective bargaining over pay persists. And yet year after year since 2008 council workers across the UK have seen the drastic erosion of their salaries and living standards. After three years of an absolute pay freeze across local government following the trillion pound bail-out of the banking sector, local government workers have seen nominal pay rises of barely 1% since 2013. In real terms that means there has been a yawning gap of nearly 18 percentage points between increases in local government pay and the rising cost of living between 2010 and 2016.
And through most of 2017 that real pay gap has widened still further with inflation, as measured by the Retail Price Index, standing at 3.6% this July. Even on the government’s preferred yardstick, the Consumer Price Index, inflation at 2.6% has once more outstripped wage increases across the whole economy. Meanwhile, years of ‘pay restraint’ have done nothing to save jobs or maintain services, with literally hundreds of thousands of jobs axed across the public sector and services, from fire stations to libraries and Sure Start centres, shut.
During the summer, the three nationally recognised unions across local government, Unison, the GMB and Unite, have jointly lodged a claim for a 5% across the board rise effective from April 2018. This would cover the vast majority of local government staff under the National Joint Council (NJC) for England, Wales and the north of Ireland. So now the question is: will public sector workers in local government and beyond finally have the chance to come together to say “enough is enough, end the pay cuts”? The abject failure of previous local government pay campaigns has undoubtedly sapped many activists’ morale. Cynicism at Unison’s recently launched ‘Pay Up Now’ campaign would be understandable, but also self-defeating.
There is certainly a stronger than ever basis for co-ordinated action across services and unions, and there are some encouraging signs with weekday lobbies and demonstrations announced for central London on Thursday 12th and Tuesday 17th October. Contrary to the Miliband-Balls years, the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership has clearly backed an end to the pay cap and shown itself willing to back public sector strikes. Such backing from the Labour leadership should give a crucial boost to the morale of a beleaguered workforce.
Ultimately, effective industrial action will almost certainly be needed to end the pay cap and secure real rises. That means aggressive, sustained campaigning in the here and now - both to persuade non-members to join relevant unions and to win overwhelming votes for strike action to beat the staggeringly high turnout threshold imposed by the government’s 2016 Trade Union Act. Some union officials will only be only too keen to note that in May Unison members across Scottish councils voted heavily in favour of strike action over pay, but turnout fell well below the 50% threshold.
In sharp contrast, the grassroots campaign by County Durham teaching assistants since late 2015 has illustrated the potential to win ballots with turnouts topping 60% and huge majorities for action, even with members spread across dozens of small workplaces over a wide radius. There is no simple blueprint for success, but a combination of genuine encouragement from national leaderships and inclusive campaigns by members at the base offers a real chance of finally ending the pay cap and so driving a stake into the heart of the Tories’ austerity agenda.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP