The growing campaign against Gordon Brown’s war on workers’ wages took a major step forward this week after local government workers voted to strike.
The strike could involve up to 800,000 Unison union members.
Workers are protesting at a below-inflation pay offer of 2.45 percent. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said council workers were “fed up and angry” that they were expected to accept “pay cut after pay cut” at time when food and fuel prices had risen steeply.
Prentis said, “Most of them are low-paid workers, who are hit hardest by food and fuel price hikes and they see the unfairness of boardroom bonanzas and big City bonuses.”
Those set to walk out include social workers, teaching assistants, dinner ladies, cooks, cleaners, refuse collectors, architects and housing benefit staff.
Over 250,000 council workers earn less than £6.50 an hour. The union wants a 6 percent pay rise or 50p an hour extra, whichever is the greater.
The Unison negotiating committee was meeting to plan the action – likely to be a two-day strike in the second week of July – as Socialist Worker went to press.
John McDermott, from Leeds local government Unison, spoke to Socialist Worker in a personal capacity. He said, “The ballot result is great news and a sign that workers across both the public and private sector are fed up with below-inflation pay rises.
“Alistair Darling keeps repeating the mantra ‘pay restraint’. In my world pay restraint means pay cuts and going without. In Darling’s world pay restraint means a new car every two years instead of every year.
“The Shell tanker drivers have recently shown what can be achieved in the private sector with a 14 percent pay deal over two years.
“It’s now time for Unison to deliver a hammer blow against the government and national employers who keep crying the poor tale about ‘affordability’ while many of our members are living in or close to poverty.
The local government strikes can become the next staging post in the battle against the government’s attempts to cut wages across the public sector.
As one housing worker outside the national pay agreement said, “We want the local authority workers to get as much as possible because our employer has promised to match it.
“If all else fails we could all become Shell tanker drivers.”
Some 100,000 local government workers in Scotland are due to start a ballot for strike action over pay after Unison, along with the GMB and Unite unions, rejected an annual 2.5 percent pay offer from Scotland’s 32 councils over the next three years.
Over 100,000 members of the PCS civil service workers’ union could also join the strike. There are currently 18 civil service departments where there is a dispute over pay.
Many of these struck on 24 April alongside teachers and lecturers, and the PCS has argued for co-ordinated action of different unions to increase the pressure on the government.
The PCS national executive was meeting this week to discuss calling out its members currently in dispute alongside Unison strikers. The PCS is also to ballot all of its over 250,000 members in the public sector over striking over below-inflation pay offers.
Unison activists in local government now need to start campaigning for the biggest turnout on the strike days.
Workers in the CWU, UCU and NUT unions are building up to ballots for action at the end of the summer over pay. They can help build momentum for their own action by giving support and solidarity to the local government workers.
For instance, when teachers struck on 24 April, many teaching assistants didn’t work on health and safety grounds. Teachers will need to do the same in July when teaching assistants in Unison are out on strike.
New Labour is in trouble and the growing pay revolt has the potential to get a complete U-turn out of the government over workers’ pay – if not more.