Socialist Worker

Tories in chaos over public sector pay cap—unions should fight to break it

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2561

Striking for higher pay at Kings College Hospital in October 2014

Striking for higher pay at Kings College Hospital in October 2014 (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The first fruits of the Tories’ agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were seen last night, Wednesday. MPs voted by 323 to 309 votes against a Labour amendment to the queen’s speech calling for an end to the 1 percent public sector pay cap.

The decision came as the Tories were plunged further into chaos. Just hours after a senior Tory source indicated that ministers would review the cap at the next budget, Theresa May’s spokesperson said this was not the case. 

“The government policy has not changed,” he told a  Downing Street briefing. He repeating the phrase, or variants of it, 16 times as he was pressed on how this could be squared with the earlier comments.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, said, “Ministers marched through the lobby to show Tory austerity is business as usual.

“The money is there when the Conservatives need it to keep themselves in office. But the rest of the country now face more devastating cuts to our services.” 

Millions of public sector workers have suffered pay freezes or pay curbs for seven years. On average public sector pay has been cut by 10 percent in “real terms”—once inflation is taken into account. 

But it’s even worse for many. Since 2010, the pay of the majority of NHS staff has been eroded by 17 per cent in real terms.

Tory MPs, and some Tories who lost their seats, have complained to party leaders that they were hammered by voters over this issue during the election. They said key questions were the attacks on the NHS, the brutal cuts to schools in England—and public sector pay.

Gavin Barwell, May’s new chief of staff, said he lost his Croydon Central seat because Jeremy Corbyn “tapped into” public anger over the cap.

Unison union general secretary Dave Prentis said, “The government has to commit to ending the pay cap. Public sector workers have waited long enough and won’t tolerate any more delays.”

TUC union federation general secretary Frances O'Grady said, "If the cap is lifted, it will be a massive victory for trade union campaigning."

But trade union leaders have been half-hearted in their fight over pay. They have allowed years of below-inflation awards to be imposed and often stifled the strikes that did begin against the cap.

Cobbled 

In July 2014 over a million public sector workers struck across England and Wales, but their action were eventually suspended. The rotten two-year deal that was cobbled together for local government workers was so unpopular it was later rejected at a special Unison conference.

It won’t be enough now to break the 1 percent cap and just receive, say, a 1.75 percent “rise”. 

That’s still below inflation—and therefore a pay cut. As Rehana Azam, GMB national secretary for public services, said, “All public sector workers must now receive an above inflation pay rise. 

"Public sector workers have lost out on thousands, now they need proper pay rises to make up for the damage that’s been done.”

Such words need to be turned into action—and soon. Unions representing more than 1.6 million local government workers recently submitted a claim for a 5 percent pay rise.

There needs to be a big fight to win it. As Ameen Hadi from Unison’s Salford City branch told Socialist Worker, “We need to move now with a real sense of urgency. 

“As soon as the employers say they are not willing to meet our claim we want to ballot members.”


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