Anger at the Tories’ public sector pay cap dominated debate at the Trade Union Congress conference in Brighton yesterday, Monday.
The issue is urgent. Years of pay freezes or “rises” capped at 1 percent have left workers thousands of pounds a year worse off.
In the first six years of Conservative rule, public sector pay rose by just 4.4 percent, yet the cost of living soared by 22 percent. That means in real terms pay fell by over 17 percent.
The Tories have hinted that they would lift the cap—but only for some workers.
The BBC reports that the cap will be lifted for police and prison officers this week, and in the future it could go for “hard to recruit” jobs such as nursing and teaching.
Labour was set to force a house of commons vote on scrapping the cap for NHS workers, and perhaps others, on Wednesday this week.
Delegates unanimously passed a motion that slammed the cap—and called for action to scrap it. But the debate also showed up tensions among unions about how to fight to get rid of it.
Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said, “On 17 October we will rally in Parliament Square to send a message to Theresa May.
“Five million hard-working public servants need it, the public backs it—now just tell the treasury to get on with it. No cherry picking—all public servants deserve a pay rise and they deserve it now.”
Dave Prentis, Unison union leader, said, “Scrapping the cap is not enough, this is a fight for real pay increases.”
To loud cheers, he added that there would have to be “joint ballots for joint industrial action If all else fails”.
But it’s unclear how this will be turned into action.
In 2014 the TUC Congress’ slogan was “Britain needs a pay rise”. After three years of its “political campaign”—warm words and hoping the Tories would listen—workers’ pay has fallen further still.
The Tories are in deep trouble but there is no guarantee they will fall by themselves. It will take a fight from below to break the government—and then to win the rises workers need from a new government.
That’s why it’s right to call for industrial action now. As Mark Serwotka, PCS union general secretary, told the conference, “We have a weak government with no mandate, now is the time not just for resolutions, but for action.
“My union is now balloting every single public sector member. We are aware of anti-union laws, that’s why we’ve got a consultative ballot and we’re going to analyse the result and flood resources into the areas we need to.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we all had consultative ballets in the run up to the budget? If they don’t give pay rises for us all, we can give united, coordinated strikes.”
The UCU lecturers’ union is presently consulting its Further Education members over action on pay.
The motion called on the TUC to “develop a coordinated strategy of opposition to the pay cap”. This could include “sharing and coordinating campaign activities, tactics, ballots and industrial action”.
It also called for a national demonstration.
Demonstrations must lead to strikes
A national demonstration over pay backed by unions and the Labour Party could mobilise tens of thousands of people. It could replicate the energy we saw around Corbyn’s general election campaign in the summer.
But we also need strikes.
Several motions from Unison, PCS, FBU and other unions were “composited”—put together as one.
Unfortunately a section from the FBU motion was taken out that had called for “immediate steps to commence a campaign for joint and sustained industrial action”.
Even among some of the left union leaders, there’s a worry that the Trade Union Act makes national action impossible.
Unions have to reach a 50 percent threshold of people voting. Forty percent of all those entitled to vote in the ballot must vote in favour of industrial action in certain public services such as key areas of health, education, fire and transport.
The Trade Union Act should not stop unions fighting. The CWU union’s current ballot campaign is showing the sort of office by office agitation and organisation that can exceed the thresholds.
Candy Udwin of the PCS national executive committee said their consultative ballot could help to prepare a good turnout for a real strike ballot.
Speaking in a personal capacity she told Socialist Worker, “We have to treat this as if it were a proper ballot. The government is on the back foot over this issue, and we can get a strong turnout if we connect to the political mood around Corbyn.
“PCS is doing the right thing and other unions are watching us. We have to encourage other unions to take action.”
At a Trade Union Coordinating Group fringe meeting Mark Serwotka said, “The most effective way to fight is for all those affected is to stand together.
“But”, he warned, “We can carry the motion, but we will probably be here again next year—our union is saying that the time is now.”
Unions need to ballot their members for actions. And activists need to organise to put pressure onto them.There can be pressure for recall conferences to get pay action now.
Sean Vernell from the UCU lecturers’ union said, “By breaking the Tories’ pay freeze, we can put a real dent in the Tories’ austerity programme as a whole.
“We need coordinated action—we’ve done this before, we got 29 unions out together in November 2011.
“If the McDonald’s workers can do it, so can we.”
He took on the idea that the Trade Union Act made national strikes impossible. “We mustn’t allow the Tory government to bully us from striking,” he said.
“If we got support from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to campaign alongside the unions we could smash the 50 percent threshold.
“There is a mood, there is an appetite. But if that is not connected to action, there is a danger we’ll be back here next year scratching our heads.
“Let’s coordinate together, let’s march together”.
Take action in your towns and cities
Meetings, rallies and protests over pay are being organised in many places across Britain.
For example, in the North West of England the regional TUC as called pay meetings.
These are set to take place on 20 September in Bootle and Rawtenstall, on 25 September in Nelson, on 27 September in Westhoughton and on 29 September in Manchester.
There are also rallies planned in Worcester on Thursday this week and Mansfield on 14 October.
Unison Scotland has called a march and rally in Edinburgh on Saturday 7 October.
A range of unions are backing a TUC lobby of parliament and rally in London on 17 October.
And the biggest focus of all is the People’s Assembly demonstration at the Tory party conference in Manchester on Sunday 1 October.
In all of these the message has to go out clearly:
- Strike together to scrap the pay cap now for all public sector workers. No to false distinctions between “deserving” and “undeserving” workers.
- Fully funded increases, no to raiding already overstretched budgets for pay rises.
- Pay rises above inflation to begin repairing the damage of the last decade—5 percent or more now and similar increases in the future.
- Pay rises should include a big lump sum element that gives most to the low paid.
- £10 an hour minimum for all public sector workers, directly employed or outsourced.
Solidarity with McDonald's strikers
The McDonald's workers' walkout was cheered several times by delegates at the TUC.
McDonald's workers at two sites—Cambridge and Crayford in south east London—held the first-ever strike at the corporation in Britain last month.
At a fringe meeting, organised by Unite the Resistance, the Bfawu union and others, trade unionists discussed how to learn the lessons of their struggle.
Georgina, one of the strikers, told the meeting, "Every day something different could happen in McDonald's. I could get pulled into an office and shouted at or be made to clean up after a manager because I'm a woman worker.
"But ever since we balloted for strikes, they were trying to show they were concerned.
"It shows the hold we have over them."
The McDonald's workers have shown that it's possible to organise in difficult conditions. Monica, another worker, said, "I'm not from this country, but fighting with my colleagues.
"We're here fighting for better conditions together."
More strikes are essential to build on the success of their first walkout. Gareth Lane, a Bfawu union organiser, said, "The way we're going to grow is store to store, we're going to escalate this across them.
"We're weighing up if we're going to go for a day or hour strikes, but we've got stores ready to go."
The RMT rail and maritime workers' union donated £10,000 to the campaign.
Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, said, "We can't just rely on politicians in the Labour Party to get £10 an hour, we have to do it industrially.
"Our movement has got to get bigger, that will make us all better off, that's why we are supporting the campaign."
More unions need to give their support to their fight.
Other speakers at the fringe meeting included Bfawu general secretary Ronnie Draper and Sean Vernell from Unite the Resistance.
Uniting against racism
Trade unionists debated how to take forward the fight against racism at a Stand Up To Racism TUC conference fringe meeting on Tuesday.
Wilf Sullivan, the TUC race relations officer, slammed the racist scapegoating of migrants by politicians and the press. "Politicians from all parties say it's not racist to talk about migration in this way," he said.
"We have to start challenging what's going on when people say that they are just trying to have a reasonable discussion about immigration."
The meeting came after a leaked Home Office document revealed the scale of the clampdown the Tories are planning on European Union (EU) migrants. Sullivan said, "Some people say Brexit was the fault of the working class because they don't like migrants.
"First of all that's not true and nobody says a word about a prime minister who sent 'go home' vans and a foreign secretary who called black people piccaninnies."
Kevin Courtney, NEU teachers' union joint general secretary, argued the fight against racism had to be part of a broader fight for an alternative set of politics. "We can't think of racism separated from other questions of class," he said.
"Where I grew up in Merthyr there are no good jobs left and in that circumstance people can get the idea that migrants take the jobs.
"That's wrong, but part of anti-racism is explaining how we can get those jobs there."
Building a movement against racism in our workplaces is a key part of resisting the Tories' scapegoating. Unions fighting back over austerity also has the potential to unite workers.
Jane Loftus, CWU union president, said, "If you want to get unity and understand other cultures—go on strike.
"Because if your not united you can't take on the bosses."
Weyman Bennett, joint convenor of SUTR, urged people to get their trade unions involved in SUTR. "We are at a crossroads," he said. "One of the key weapons of Theresa May and the Tories is to use racism to divide us.
"Part of Stand Up To Racism's job is to make sure we are organised against that."
Delegates were urged to come to the SUTR conference on 21 October.