UP TO 15,000 firefighters marched through London on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday 50,000 council workers across the capital were to strike. And on Monday almost one million council workers across Britain started voting on strikes. All these fights focus on one issue-the miserable level of pay many public sector workers get.
The pay issue is especially sharp in areas like London, where the cost of housing has spiralled. Pay is a national scandal in the public sector. More than 270,000 council workers earn below £5 an hour. Over two thirds of all council workers earn less than £14,559 a year. The Council of Europe's decency threshold is £7.37 an hour-884,000 council workers in Britain fall below that level. These low paid workers provide essential services.
They are classroom assistants and school meals workers. They are drivers helping disabled children get to school or delivering meals to the elderly. They are carers in vulnerable people's homes, caretakers cleaning estates, and many, many more workers all doing vital jobs.
Years of cuts mean many are working harder and harder. Mike Greenhalf works for North East Derbyshire District Council. 'There is a real feeling, even an enthusiasm, about striking over pay,' he says. 'But it's not just about pay.
'There is a mood over increasing workloads and a real sense of unfairness. You have cuts and an endless succession of government initiatives without the resources to implement them. You have people working harder and harder. Meanwhile you see top council bosses effectively awarding themselves massive pay rises, thousands of pounds extra. You get councillors doing one or two days a week getting more in allowances than people working flat out all week doing vital frontline jobs.'
A poll by the Unison union last week found that seven out of ten council workers had considered leaving their jobs in the last year because of low pay and overwork. Almost one in three of the workers polled said they routinely worked extra hours for no extra pay. The overwhelming majority said their workload had increased in the last year.
If the national ballot now taking place is successful, over one million council workers could be set to start their action with a national one-day strike on Wednesday 17 July. That strike could involve members of all the major council workers' unions-Unison, the TGWU and the GMB.
The unions are demanding an increase of 6 percent or a flat rate increase of £1,750. That modest claim would lift the minimum wage of council workers to just £11,017 a year. Everyone should back the council workers' fight-and all the other battles to win decent pay.
THE biggest firefighters' march for 25 years was held in London on Tuesday. Some 15,000 members of the firefighters' FBU union marched in support of their pay claim. They waved flags, blew whistles, and were cheered by office workers and passers-by.
They came from as far afield as Inverness, Northern Ireland and Wales to demand a decent pay rise. There was a brilliant turnout from London, where some firefighters want to join the campaign for increased London weighting allowance as well as the national pay claim.
They cheered when George Galloway MP told them, 'In parliament I see plenty of money available to go around the world setting fire to other people's countries, but no money for our fire service who risk their lives every day. There is plenty of money for fat cats in the City, but not enough to pay a decent wage to Britain's firefighters.'
The leader of the FBU, Andy Gilchrist, pledged that the union would be prepared to support industrial action if the government did not pay the firefighters the £30,000 they want.
THE TWO-day strike by 50,000 council workers in London this week follows a one-day strike last month. They are fighting for an increase in the London weighting allowance they get for the extra cost of living and working in the capital.
London council workers want £4,000 a year, up from what can be as little as £1,947 a year now. Compare that with the police, who get a London allowance of up to £6,000 a year. They also get free travel within a 70-mile radius of London.
'We have to make a stand'
THE FIREFIGHTERS' march was part of their national fight for a decent pay rise. Their recent FBU union conference voted to strike if there is no settlement by November. Mark Walton is a firefighter at Clerkenwell fire station in London: 'I live in Portsmouth and have to travel to London. I'm not unusual. Out of 13 people on my watch only three live inside the M25. We have people travelling from Nottingham, Clacton, Bishop's Stortford and Salisbury. I know of firefighters who travel to work in London from Manchester and Liverpool. It's not just a London thing. It's anywhere where house prices are high. In Reading there are firefighters commuting from Wales.
'I have children from a previous marriage, so I need a two-bedroom place so they can come and stay. There's no way I can afford anywhere in London. I have to drive up to work. It would be too expensive by train. And anyway, it's impossible by public transport with our shifts. I have to leave home sometimes at 5am, then work until six in the evening. If you went home you'd just get there and have to leave again to get in for the next shift. Sometimes you stay at friends or you have to just find somewhere to keep out of the way in the station. If you're working at night you can be up for 15 hours and then have a two or three hour drive to get home. It's not safe. Across the public sector it's the same story of underfunding and people not being paid enough. If we don't all make a stand, things will just get worse.'