Last week saw a serious setback for the movement to challenge Gordon Brown’s public sector pay limits as the leaderships of two big unions decided against calling nationwide strike action that their members had voted for.
Leaders of the PCS civil service union decided to call off a strike planned for Monday of this week, while the executive of the teachers’ NUT union decided against a strike, despite a yes vote in a ballot of its members.
Both cases illustrate the growing importance of having a political vision that goes beyond the horizon of any individual union, particularly as the recession takes hold.
The NUT executive says its 51.7 percent vote for strike action was not sufficient to sanction action, and that to do so would have meant losing members to its more conservative rival, the NASUWT.
Yet there was a similar argument in the run-up to the successful one-day strike this April. In the event the NUT not only gained members but also recruited a new generation of activists.
Following the strike, the executive decided to postpone the ballot for the next round of action until the start of the new term, thereby wasting the momentum that had been built up.
Despite this, NUT members voted to take discontinuous national strike action for the first time in the union’s history.
Though a setback, the situation in the civil service is less grave than for teachers as there is a possibility that the planned strike could soon be reinstated.
The PCS national executive voted to suspend its action for four weeks to allow talks with the government. In truth some in the union’s leadership have been wobbling over calling action from the day the ballot result was announced.
They seized on the government’s offer of talks, even though there were no concrete improvements on offer. However, the plea for negotiations does show that ministers knew the strike would be a success.
The PCS and the NUT are left-led unions. But in both cases too many among the leadership are affected by a pessimism that says that their members cannot fight over pay when economic conditions mean that many people’s jobs are on the line.
It is undeniable that currently many workers fear for their jobs, but it is also the case that they are angry that below-inflation “pay rises” are making it impossible to keep up with the ever increasing cost of living.
Determined leadership in the unions can give strength to those who have worries. This week’s decisions are likely to have the opposite effect.
The argument that workers cannot fight back in a recession has already seen unions in the private sector recommend pay cuts in return for slim promises of job security. This is music to the ears of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.
They want to maintain employment, but on the lowest of wages by keeping pay limits well below price rises. In this way workers can be made to pay for the economic crisis while bankers are bailed out.
This should not be a time for union leaders to ditch the fightback over pay or to rally behind Brown’s pro-business policies.
Thirty years ago unions accepted wage cuts from a Labour government because, we were told, it was necessary to bail out Great Britain PLC at a time of economic recession. Not only did wages fall but unemployment queues also lengthened.
The resulting demoralisation paved the way for the election of Margaret Thatcher.
In every recession capitalists look to drive down wages and cut jobs in order to salvage profits.
Today there are worrying signs that wages are falling at the same time as unemployment surges. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation reports that October saw both a record fall in the number of new jobs and the first drop in wages for five years.
The lesson from the past three years is that each failure to fight the pay freeze has encouraged employers and governments to come back for more.
This week we will get the results of the Unite union’s ballot of health workers on their three-year below-inflation pay deal.
We will also hear if Scottish local government workers have rejected their pitiful offer. We must hope that the anger in both groups is turned into action.
There needs to be a nationwide fight by our unions to win a living wage. Everybody needs to organise at a rank and file level to build networks that can be at the heart of that resistance.