Socialist Worker

Theresa May suffers humiliation in pay cap vote—unions must go on the offensive

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2572

Chants of Scrap the cap rang out in front of parliament last week

Chants of "Scrap the cap" rang out in front of parliament last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Tory prime minister Theresa May has suffered a humiliating blow over the public sector pay cap. 

A Labour Party parliamentary motion calling on the Tories to lift the 1 percent pay cap for NHS workers passed unopposed yesterday afternoon, Wednesday. Later in the day another motion passed opposing a £250 a year increase in tuition fees which the Tories have forced through by a mechanism that avoided a Commons debate.

Since 2010, when the Tories first took office with the Lib Dems, nurses have suffered a 14 percent pay cut in "real terms"—adjusted for inflation—because of the cap. 

The motion doesn't bind the Tories to lifting the NHS pay cap—but it's a sign of the mounting pressure on the government. And the one on tuition fees won't stop the rise.

But the motions emphasise the weakness of May's government.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opportunistically backed both of them. Knowing they were going to lose, the Tories' abstained so they wouldn't officially go through such a clear defeat.

At the TUC union federation conference this week, union leaders talked tough about the need to scrap the cap—and give public sector workers inflation-busting 5 percent pay rises. 

Dave Prentis, who leads the largest health union, Unison, said, "Scrapping the cap is not enough—this is a fight for real pay increases."

He also warned that there would be "joint ballots for industrial action if all else fails." 

With the Tories reeling, now is the time to back up those words with action. 

Karen Reissmann is a health worker who sits on the Unison union's health service group executive. "At work we need to call section meetings over pay," she told Socialist Worker in a personal capacity. 

"You don't have to be a rep to do that, just say it's an informal staff or union members’ meeting." 

"The key things now are the demonstration at the Tory party conference on 1 October and  the pay rally in London on 17 October," she added. "People need to take delegations down to London and we also need to hold local pay rallies with other unions."

Sam Strudwick, a health worker and Unison union member, told Socialist Worker in a personal capacity, "Now that the Tories have suffered a setback, we have to go on the offensive.

"We've got to support any fight by workers, particularly in and health and social care, and we have to put pressure on our union leaders for strikes.

"Now is the time for all the unions to fight together." 

Mobilising around pay can put pressure on the union leaders to lead a fight that can break the cap. 

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said it will ballot for industrial action if there isn't any movement by the budget in November. In a pay consultation in May some 76 percent of RCN members already said they would be willing to take industrial action over pay. 

This is a clear indication of the mood to fight among nurses and a much broader anger over poverty pay. 

Firefighters in the FBU union yesterday rejected a 2 percent pay offer, despite the FBU national executive recommending acceptance. 

The UCU union is holding a consultative ballot of members in further education over industrial action. The PCS civil service workers’ union is doing the same among all of its members.  

Union need to mobilise—and not let the opportunity pass to strike a blow against the divided Tory government. 

  • 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.
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