By Jeremy Dewar
“IN TERMS of the concept of coordinated public service workers action, yes, I think that's very likely and very much on the cards,” said Len McCluskey, head of Unite Britain’s largest union, at this year’s TUC Congress.
When pressed by BBC’s Andrew Marr on whether he would support strikes where the ballot failed to reach the new legal minimum of 50% turnout and 40% support from all those eligible to vote, he replied,
"If they haven't managed to hit an artificial threshold that this Government have foolishly put onto the statute books, then I will stand by our members and we will all live, including the Government, with the consequences of that."
McCluskey is well known for his fiery rhetoric, but even the usually mild-mannered Dave Prentis of Unison, Britain’s second largest union, got in on the act:
“In the first six years of Conservative rule, public sector pay rose by just 4.4% yet the cost of living soared by 22%, and to rub salt into those wounds, the pay of top bosses rose by a third in one year alone,” he told congress, “Whilst the rich feather their nests, public service workers struggle to afford the basics. The government calls it prudence and restraint. I call it inhuman.”
But when it came to action, Dave was a little more circumspect: “We must commit to marching, demonstrating and lobbying, not just in Westminster but in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh too.”
Such fighting talk has not been heard from our union leaders for at least three years – and given the urgent need for a pay rise, it is most welcome.
In the end it was Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, who moved the motion calling for a joint claim and joint strikes:
“We have a weak government with no mandates to implement further public sector pay restraint and now is the time not just for resolution but for the action required to defeat this government pay cap and put real-terms pay increases in the pockets of our members,” he said.
“We know concessions are coming, we know they are going to cherry-pick, they are going to attempt to divide and rule. Our message is simple: scrap the cap. We all deserve a pay rise.”
In the end 13 public sector unions got behind his call for a 5% increase, costing £9 billion, and coordinated strikes to win it. Delegates passed the motion unanimously.
As with all these conference speeches and resolutions, however, they come with an Official TUC Health Warning, or should do. Mark suggested that it would be great “if we could have coordinated ballots in the run-up to the budget,” i.e. on 22 November.
The likelihood of this is next to nil. And that’s ballots, not strikes.
The truth is that only three unions are conducting ballots on lifting the pay cap: the PCS itself, the postal workers’ CWU and the Prison Officers’ Association, and the PCS ballot is only consultative. The Royal College of Nursing gained a 78% strike mandate in their consultation exercise in April.
Some unions, e.g. the local government unions, are also constrained by the fact that their next pay settlements not being scheduled until next Spring. It would be a dangerous game for the more advanced unions – like the PCS and CWU – to delay their members to wait until the slowest union to be ready to fight.
The two fairly recent exercises in co-ordinating strikes have also not been particularly successful. In 2011, united action over pension cuts dissipated the day after a monster 2 million-strong strike, with most unions splitting to make their own deals with the government. In 2014, pay deals were even more quietly signed off, again after a single day of unity.
Nevertheless we remain in a good position to take on the Tories and for unions across the public sector to solidarise with each other at national and local level.
The Tories are weak and divided. In fact the government was forced to tell its MPs to abstain on a vote to lift the pay cap for nurses when it became clear that the DUP would support Labour’s (non-binding) motion, as would some of its own ministers.
But there remain three dangers. First we need to try and up the claims. Five per cent is a pay rise, but only a 2% pay rise if you take official inflation figures into account. If we are to catch up with what we have lost, then a minimum 15% pay rise is needed. If we strike for too little, then we will get even less.
Second, the Tories will indeed try to divide and rule, declaring some public sector workers are “more deserving” than others. Already, the government has ratified 2% and 1.7% pay offers for the law and order guardians in the police and prison service. Maybe they could agree to a couple of percentage points for the NHS staff – while stamping on tax officers or benefits staff, who generally pull fewer heart strings.
We need to stop union leaders running off to sign deals that leave others in the lurch. The best way to do that is by forming local action committees, involving all the unions in dispute, user groups and campaigns, and Labour Party branches.
The third danger is that the whole dispute is run from the top, ultra-cautiously, with one-day strikes few and far between, allowing the government to ride it out. This would not lead to private sector and gig economy workers being inspired to follow suit. On the contrary, it would deflate, after a while, even those striking for their own pay rise.
Look at the Brummie binworkers: they struck for weeks, filled the streets with decomposing detritus and even threatened to do it all again. They won. So can we. Let’s use the first opportunity to show our strength by turning up en masse to the TUC lobby of parliament at 6.00pm on Tuesday 17 October.