Public Sector Workers' Strikes

As the economy unravels before our eyes, with the credit crunch opening the door to a housing crisis and ever higher food, fuel and living costs, the usual suspects are trotted out for blame. Or rather, usual suspect, for as ever it is the working class which is seen as the culprit for an ever worsening situation. City analysts cannot accept that the years of so called economic growth were built on foundations of sand and therefore bound to crumble in spectacular fashion. Instead they lay the blame for the origin of the credit crunch squarely at the feet of those American workers who ‘greedily and recklessly’ tried to buy their own homes and then came unstuck when they couldn’t afford the payments.

And as in the rest of the world, workers in Britain are being held responsible for the effects of the domestic economic crisis. No matter they are the ones feeling the brunt of the downturn most severely. It’s a bit like giving somebody the bill for a party they weren’t allowed to attend and asking them to mop out the toilets while they’re at it.

Economy On the Skids

The Government’s public sector pay limit is one of the weapons in this attack. The target figure for salary increases is 2%. The Government cannot afford to go any higher, it says, because this will lead to inflation and this in turn will damage other workers whose wages will devalue. And to show willing MPs awarded themselves a pay rise under 2%, just to show we’re all in this together. Unfortunately no sooner had they announced this when their expenses claims came to light. Unlike workers in the public sector, MPs are allowed to claim a various range of expenses, from furniture for their second homes (up to £23,000 a year from the infamous John Lewis list, which includes things like £10,000 for a new kitchen, £1,000 for a bed). They’re also entitled to claim £400 a month for food. They can legally hire members of their family to muck about at vastly inflated wages as Derek Conway showed when he paid his son £40,000 a year as a parliamentary researcher while he was a student. Then there is the grey area - expenses which just happen to cover other costs. MP Caroline Spelman managed to pay for her nanny for years because the nanny occasionally posted the odd letter which she argued constituted help with her constituency work. It was explained away as an “accidental misuse” of the allowance. The phrase “bare-faced” might be more appropriate.

Petty scandals like this come and go, but the howls of protest which go up whenever the working class fights to maintain its living standards are pretty much constant. Many public sector workers are amongst the most poorly paid in the country. Brown’s pay limit will mean at most a measly 90p a week increase for those on the lowest bands and for those on higher bands between 50p to 70p a week. The argument that wage increases lead to inflation obviously didn’t apply to City bankers who last summer took home bonuses of a staggering £14 billions. This is particularly galling to workers like those in the NHS in England, who had their pay award of 2.5% effectively cut to 1.9% by delivering it in two stages to keep inflation under control.

Workers Fight Back

But the argument that higher wages lead to inflation sounds increasingly hollow. No massive wage increases have been awarded to workers (and the vastly inflated cost of housing was never included anyway) and yet we now face inflation of 4% with the Bank of England predicting a rise to 5% and no growth, leading us into a period of stagflation. The offer of 2% was a pay cut last year and is even more of a cut now.

The working class haven’t taken all of this lying down. As well as the strikes last month by half a million public sector workers, those in the Public and Commercial Services Union (including driving test examiners, staff at the Value Office Agency and at the Identity and Passport Service) have also walked out recently, as have workers on the London Underground. The action by public sector workers in July led to closures of schools and libraries, hitting council offices and refuse collections. Members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) are planning further action, including track workers, train maintainers, cleaners and signallers. Members of the PCS will ballot in September and further action is on the cards.

Union Manoeuvres

There is no doubt that as the economic situation becomes ever more dire, the attacks on workers will become ever more vicious, and the class struggle which results will succeed or fail on the extent to which workers will be able to free themselves from union control. As it stands the strikes, as planned, are all one-day walkouts designed not to cause too much disruption and guaranteed not to cost the union a penny. They’ll cause some disruption to the ruling class but more damage still to workers’ overstretched overdrafts. The unions are working hard to make sure workers are divided from each other. The RMT is dividing up action so that the cleaners come out on a separate day to the track workers. If the PCS ballot goes in favour of action, again workers will be called out on a rolling programme on a sector by sector basis. Workers trying to build up contacts with other strikers will be monitored by the unions through various umbrella groups. In the public sector, the GMB is recommending its members accept the offer, leaving their colleagues in Unite to carry on.

As ever, the unions stand in the way of real solidarity and self-organisation of the working class. They fragment any real fightback and keep workers split and divided, sector by sector, union by union. Unions have only ever existed to promote one section of the working class in a particular trade or area over another, and if the needs of their members conflict with the needs of their industry or business to survive, then their members are inevitably sacrificed for the good of capital. The only chance striking workers will have of defending themselves from the onslaught of an ever worried ruling class is by taking action outside union control, linking up with other striking workers, setting up mass assemblies free from the restrictions of union rules. Workers have shown they have the stomach to fight, but their real power will only kick in when they free themselves from their unions and organise the fightback themselves.


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