Paul Nowak on preparing for the TUC-led mass action in October
On July 10 this year, over 1 million public sector workers took industrial action, frustrated by the government’s continuing squeeze on pay and pensions. And we are likely to see further industrial action in both local government and the NHS just a few days before the TUC hosts a massive national demonstration under the banner ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ on October 18. Stagnant wages aren’t just an issue for public sector workers. Right across the public and private sector, pay-packets have yet to reflect the government’s much heralded economic recovery. Of course, rising GDP is good news, as is falling unemployment. But for the vast majority of working people in Britain and their families, the fact is that the recovery hasn’t yet found its way into their wallets and purses.
It matters to public and private sector workers who’ve faced the longest squeeze on living standards since the 1870’s. After all every month that inflation outstrips wages means a real terms pay cut for millions of working people. Unions – as you might expect – have been stressing for some time that a recovery underpinned by rising property prices, particularly in London and the south east, rather than real wages growth is unsustainable. But, perhaps more surprisingly, calls to boost wages are now being echoed by figures as diverse as the Director-General of the CBI, the Governor of the Bank of England and the Archbishop of York.
The need to get real wages rising is just one of the key challenges we face in building a fair, sustainable and balanced recovery. We need more government support: for a coherent industrial policy; measures to reduce the short-termism endemic across the UK economy; banking reforms which reward long-term investment rather than high-risk share-flipping and speculation; to better harness the voice and ideas of the workforce from shopfloor to boardroom; and a national effort to boost productivity, skills and investment in the workforce. We also need to re-think the role and responsibility of businesses within our society – a fact that the likes of Poul Polman, Unilever CEO have acknowledged and begun to address through initiatives such as the ‘Blueprint for Better Business’.
But instead of this progressive, and potentially radical agenda, the government has decided instead to fall back on a stock of hoary old 1980’s policy clichés. So instead of measures to boost pay, we have the spectacle of the government dusting off bits of proposed trade union legislation that even Norman Tebbit thought went beyond the pale during his time as employment minister. Instead of engaging the public sector workforce in a genuine conversation about how to drive service improvement in a time of constrained budgets, Francis Maude et al seem more concerned with undermining the basic trade union rights of public sector workers. These are policies designed to appeal more to the Conservative backwoodsmen and possible UKIP defectors in the Tory shires than to seriously address the fundamental problems facing the UK economy. They fly in the face of public opinion – some three-quarters of the British public believe unions are essential to protect workers’ interests – and they do little to create the climate of positive employment reactions which will be an essential part of putting the UK economy firmly back on its feet after years of austerity-fuelled stagnation. This ‘back to the 80’s’ approach to unions and employment relations doesn’t stand in isolation either. From Oliver Letwin’s blue-sky thinking about a flat rate of income tax, to the Government’s determination to push the East Coast Mainline back into private hands despite the fantastic work done the government-owned Department for Railways (DoR), it is becoming clear that in the absence of any real policy direction, and with the failure of the Prime Minister to win his party over to compassionate Conservatism, the blue half of the coalition has decided to retreat into its comfort zone of privatisation, de-regulation and regressive redistribution.
It’s this agenda that should set alarm bells ringing in the trade union movement with just over 250 days to go to the next general election. The last four years have shown how much damage a Conservative-led government can do to the fabric of our society – another five years would spell disaster for the NHS, workers’ rights, our education system, and the 800,000 young people currently languishing on the dole. So the next few months will be crucial. TUC Congress and the party conference season will effectively put us under starter’s orders for what has the potential to be one of the most important – and nastiest – general elections in our recent history. Lynton Crosby doesn’t have a track record of playing nice, and so we can expect smears and attacks on trade unions and their leaders, on migrants, on welfare, on public services. Our job over the next few weeks and months will be to shift the political agenda onto the issues that really matter to unions and the people we represent – decent jobs, fair pay, world-class public services that support and nourish local communities, respect and a voice at work. We know parents care about the fact that their kids can’t find a job, or are forced to work on a zero hours contract. We know that patients would rather see tax-payers money go into providing great care in the NHS rather than shareholder dividends. We know too that people think it’s fundamentally unfair that those unlucky enough to lose their job should have to wait five weeks before they are entitled to claim any basic support for them and their family. We now have 250 days or so to show people that casting a vote next May will make a difference on these issues and much, much more. We are half-way there. Thanks to trade union campaigning, Labour is committed to ending the exploitation of zero hours contracts, to promoting the Living Wage, repealing the Health and Social Care Act and the bedroom tax, building 200,000 new homes a year, to a job guarantee for young people out of work, to putting workers on remuneration committees, and to reviewing the bust rail-franchising system. All important commitments – and all commitments which reflect the aspirations of our members and their families. I’m confident we can use the 250 days we have left to do even more – to raise the aspirations of our members and politicians alike, to deliver not just the change of government we all want to see, but the change in political direction our country deserves.