UNION LEADERS called off the strikes of over one million public sector workers on Monday of this week after they struck a deal with council bosses. The leaders of Unison, the TGWU and the GMB called off all strike action for six weeks after bosses were forced to slightly improve their previous offer of a 3 percent pay rise. This is despite the fact that they had previously refused to offer anything to council workers and said anything more than 3 percent was 'pie in the sky'. But the offer falls far short of what council workers deserve and what could have been won.
Last month's successful one-day strike had put the council bosses and the government on the defensive. The only reason the bosses came to the negotiating table at all was because of the size and unity of the huge national strike by council workers on 17 July. Both the government and the bosses were terrified of another display of workers' strength and solidarity on the next planned strike on 14 August.
But instead of keeping this pressure up and going flat out to win a 6 percent rise for all council workers, union leaders have thrown in the towel just when the bosses were on the run. If union leaders had built on the brilliant unity and spirit of the last strike, and called more national action, they could have forced the bosses to crumble and meet the council workers' demand for 6 percent.
Instead union leaders have settled for a deal which leaves thousands of workers in poverty and is tied to a minimal rise for the next two years. This is the time to fight, not to settle for compromises that still leave the majority of workers on poverty pay.
The government is facing pressure over pay across the public sector. Workers are sick to death of the injustice of low pay for doing vital public service jobs. Postal workers will soon begin a strike ballot over privatisation, with the result due on 12 September.
On the same day firefighters in the FBU union will hold a special conference to discuss strikes over pay. They are demanding £30,000 a year as a just reward for their job and to meet the rising costs of living. The government is pushing employers to offer two-year or three-year deals because it wants to nip these forthcoming struggles in the bud. But two-year and three-year deals are bad news for workers.
They tie workers to a set rise at a time when recession is just around the corner and when rents and mortgage repayments continue to go through the roof. As council worker Richard Gurney, from Bath and North East Somerset Unison, puts it, 'Low paid workers already feel vulnerable.
'They are sceptical of two-year or three-year deals. You only have to look at the falling money markets and the precarious state of jobs and the economy. 'Where will that put council workers in two years time?' The government also wants to bind such deals to what it calls 'reform'-which for staff means harder work, privatisation and greater flexibility on the bosses' terms.
Education secretary Estelle Morris tied the offer of a three-year deal for teachers to harder work and performance related pay last week. She said, 'Pay progression should be linked to greater challenge for the individual.' That means forcing already overworked teachers to jump through even more hoops to get a decent rise.
Last month's council workers' strike showed that it is united and national action which terrifies the bosses and can force them to make concessions. This week's deal also shows that workers cannot rely on union leaders to fight to the end.
During the six week consultation period council workers should campaign and argue to throw this deal out. It is vital to build and strengthen rank and file organisation from below that can put maximum pressure to win victory over pay.
What is the deal on offer?
THE FULL details and fine print of the deal were not known when Socialist Worker went to press. But it seems the council bosses' offer involves a 3 percent rise or a minimum wage of £5 an hour backdated to April 2002. Workers will get another 1 percent increase in October, with an additional 1 percent for the very low paid.
The offer includes another 3.5 percent increase from next April, with another additional 1 percent for the very low paid. Union leaders have hailed the deal as a major breakthrough. Jack Dromey from the TGWU called it a 'just settlement for the low paid'. 'An army of low paid, part time women workers will crash through the £5 an hour barrier,' he said.
But many workers will be bitterly disappointed. The deal comes nowhere near to ending low pay, and is far short of the 6 percent rise workers were demanding.
Some 275,000 council workers currently get less than £5 an hour. But for many of these workers the new deal means a rise of just 50p an hour over the next two years.
Yet some fat cat council chiefs are already fuming at this offer, and are threatening to leave vacancies open or make cuts.