SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 113 - November 2007

Public sector unrest grows

THE PRIVATISATION of our public services has brought cuts, worse provision and often dangerous practices, whether it is public transport, health care, education or local and national government services. To provide big business with opportunities to make even bigger profits, public services are primed for selling off by making cuts which include attacks on public-sector workers’ pay, jobs and conditions.

These cuts also impact on the services that public-sector workers provide. However, this year has seen a number of unions taking industrial action against these attacks.

The longest and most bitter strike for some years has been the postal workers in the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), battling not just against pay and a worse pension deal but against attacks on conditions and the strong position of the union within the postal service. With echoes of the fire fighters’ struggle in 2002, there is opposition from the government and Royal Mail management to workers having some control over their workplace and working practices. Only by weakening the union can pay and conditions be battered down.

By deregulating the postal service, the government wants to force Royal Mail workers to accept the level of pay and conditions found in private post companies. Despite pleas from union leaders and ‘left’ MPs for the government to rein in Royal Mail management, Gordon Brown has been determined to allow Crozier and Leighton to attack these workers. Comments that this could be Brown’s ‘miners’ moment’ (referring to how Thatcher and the Tories defeated the miners in 1984-85 in order to weaken the whole of the trade union movement and push back hard-won conditions and rights) could be true. Trade union density in the public sector is considerably higher than in the private sector with the contraction of workers in manufacturing, and sections are fighting back with determination.

Brown made it clear when he was chancellor that there would be a 2% pay limit for public-sector workers thereby giving them a common battleground. On his first visit to the TUC as prime minister, Brown preached that "pay discipline is essential to prevent inflation, to maintain growth and create more jobs – and so that we never return to the old boom and bust of the past". Once again he was blaming ordinary workers for ‘ruining the economy’ by asking for decent pay. He also said: "The price of a job should never be a substandard wage or a dangerous workplace", when many of his own government workers earn extremely low wages.

Despite this speech, the TUC overwhelmingly passed a resolution moved by the left-led PCS civil service union calling for co-ordinated action by public-sector workers against the pay freeze. The threat of joint action against pension attacks in 2005 led to a significant retreat by the government, confirming the need for public-sector unions to fight together against a common attack. Union leaders who would not usually back such a motion found it impossible to vote against as they have been feeling the growing anger of their members.

However, there are still just a few unions which have shown the courage and strategy to stand up to the government. The PCS, in which the Socialist Party plays a key role, won a partial victory against attacks on pensions in 2005 but still faces huge job losses, more privatisation, and the pay freeze. Having taken two national days of action earlier this year, members are being balloted for a further day of national action. This ballot was preceded by meetings across the country where 25,000 members discussed the strategy for how to defeat these attacks and most gave support for the union’s programme and are determined to win their demands.

Few will forget the bold walkout by prison officers on 29 August, their first action for 63 years, demanding an above-inflation pay rise and voicing anger at their deteriorating conditions and the state of the prisons. This was in defiance of a no-strike ‘agreement’ with the government. Justice minister Jack Straw has recently announced his intention to bring in laws to make it illegal for prison workers to strike, which the Prison Officers Association will strongly oppose.

Remploy workers have organised a very public campaign to oppose cuts to their factories and, after threatening strike action, have won a partial victory with the government announcing a moratorium on Remploy factory closures.

Health workers’ pay was marginally increased but, despite the dissatisfaction of workers in the NHS, the ballot for strike action was defeated. The right-wing leaders of UNISON, which represents most health workers, gave no lead or encouragement to their members to fight back. In fact, they did not call on their members to vote for strike action when sending out the ballot papers, arguing in their material that the miserable 2% for most health workers (with a little more for the lowest paid) was the best that could be achieved by negotiations. UNISON health branches were forbidden to campaign against the deal.

The fact that there is currently a ballot for strike action for UNISON members in local government was down to a Socialist Party member proposing and winning support for a strike ballot on the Local Government Service Group Executive. If the ballot for strike action is won, workers will take action on 14-15 November. Unfortunately, the GMB and UNITE general unions gave no clear lead to their members and their strike ballots for local government workers were lost.

Although the NUT teachers’ union seconded the composite resolution for co-ordinated public-sector action on pay at the TUC, its strike ballot does not start until 10 December. The demand of the Socialist Party member on the executive urging the union to ballot earlier to coincide with other unions was not supported by most of the executive, including all the so-called lefts (who are indistinguishable from the right on this issue). Teachers have been offered a measly 2% over three years. Meanwhile, sixth-form teachers are being balloted for action but with no recommendation to vote ‘yes’ from the NUT.

At a pay conference of University and College Union (UCU) members in further education, a pay offer of 2.55% was rejected by 54 to 34 with a proposal to ballot for industrial action if the offer is not improved.

It is still possible that if PCS members vote to take strike action this could be co-ordinated with UNISON in local government if they vote to strike, and perhaps the CWU also if its dispute continues. However, PCS is clear that, while hoping other public-sector unions will take action with them, it will go ahead with more strike action on its own if necessary.

This government, committed to the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation, is determined to attack the pay and conditions of public-sector workers. Now it has another excuse of a ‘black hole’ in public finances to limit their pay, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasting a larger than expected budget deficit. The consequences of the world credit crunch and beginnings of a slowdown in the world economy have yet to impact on the British economy.

Only determined struggle by unions in the public sector can push back Brown’s plans to keep down public-sector wages and attacks on their jobs and conditions. While some are giving a clear lead to their members, showing a determination to fight, others are allowing their members’ pay to effectively decrease when inflation is taken into account. Some union leaders, including UNISON’s Dave Prentis and UNITE’s Tony Woodley, were holding back their unions from taking any action in the run up to a possible general election as they did not want to jeopardise the re-election of Labour. Now that Brown is unlikely to call an election until 2009 they have less of an excuse, although they seem more interested in not rocking the boat for Brown than defending their members.

It is no accident that some of the most combative unions, such as the PCS and RMT, are not affiliated to the Labour Party and act clearly in the interests of their members and not the Labour government. Public-sector workers in unions affiliated to Labour will be asking why their unions are still financing the Labour Party, whose government is attacking their pay and conditions. More unions should follow the example of the Fire Brigades’ Union which disaffiliated from the Labour Party following vicious attacks from Labour during their strikes in 2002/03.

Brown has launched an attack on all public-sector workers with his pay freeze and attacks on jobs and conditions. A united response to these attacks from the public-sector unions, beginning with a one-day public-sector strike, would give workers the confidence to build a determined struggle for decent pay and conditions.

Jane James


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page