“Public sector workers: brace yourselves for the pay squeeze”, a headline in the Financial Times newspaper warned recently.
The article wasn’t referring to the Labour government’s 2 percent pay curbs.
It was referring to the fact that, as the potential for deflation in the economy grows, hints are already being dropped that public sector workers will be pushed to accept even lower levels of pay.
There are a series of battles over pay continuing on the buses and over jobs and privatisation in the post service.
But attempts to pull together public sector unions into a coordinated campaign against the government’s determination to hold down wages has stalled.
The recent decision by the PCS and NUT union leaderships not to continue the fight against low pay offers means that we now have over two million workers on multi-year deals. These will be hard to reopen.
There are attempts in the health service to renegotiate the below-inflation pay deal for NHS workers, but for all practical purposes there will be little movement over public sector pay for a number of months.
This is despite the formal agreement of every major public sector union to coordinate campaigning and action. And despite the TUC backing coordinated strike action.
The anger in the public sector over pay provided a focus for much of the bitterness over the attacks of the Labour government.
At points it did produce significant action. The vibrant strike on 24 April, involving the NUT, UCU and PCS unions, showed the potential for serious resistance.
The Unison local government action in England and Wales on 16-17 July was broadly a success. In some places the results were patchy but elsewhere there were big demonstrations and enthusiastic picketing.
The two Scottish local government strikes, on 20 August and 24 September, were more successful.
There were other opportunities for resistance along the way. The TUC passed a motion for coordinated action, days of united action and a national demonstration at this year’s Congress. But it never called them.
In a number of unions there seemed an almost perverse desire not to take coordinated action over pay and in some cases not to take any action at all. This attitude is damaging.
It is noticeable how close many ballot results were – 55 percent for action in Unison local government in England and Wales, 54 percent in the PCS and 52 percent in the NUT.
It’s noticeable too how close votes for action are interpreted as not representing enough support among members for strikes.
This raises the question of political leadership in the unions. The bureaucracies in the public sector unions backed off from confrontation with the government.
This is partly a natural tendency of the union leaders, whose position pushes them to continually seek compromises with the bosses. But it is also because they are afraid of taking on a Labour government.
There was also a political argument among many workers about whether it is possible to fight and win in a recession.
The union leaderships did not always properly address this argument.
Unfortunately the rank and file in the unions was not strong enough to counteract these obstacles.
The reluctance to tackle Labour should be a warning for activists in the battles that lie ahead – whether over pay, pensions or jobs.
There remains the potential for either a serious attack from the government or the bosses, or an example of successful resistance, to ignite the mood of bitterness and anger that exists.
We still need to argue for unity and solidarity and to provide it in practise wherever disputes arise, but we also have to fight for action pushed from below.