PRESSURE FOR action over pay next month is spreading to major groups of workers. Council workers in the Unison union are balloting for strikes over London weighting, the payment to cover the extra cost of living in the capital. This would begin with a 24-hour stoppage on 14 May. Post workers are pushing for strikes in pursuit of their national pay claim (see left).
Lecturers and workers in further education colleges have just rejected an insulting 1.5 percent national pay offer. The lecturers' Natfhe union is balloting its members for strikes beginning at the end of May. The biggest votes to reject the pay offer were in London colleges.
Some 40,000 members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) struck in London on 14 March over London allowances. NUT leaders came under pressure to step up the campaign, including further strikes, at a meeting of branch secretaries in London on Monday of this week. They have now called a rally for London teachers in May.
They also say there could be further strike action after that if the government does not increase pay in London. At the same time leaders of the three main teachers' unions in England and Wales-the NUT, NAS-UWT and ATL-are focusing on winning a reduction in workload and the working week nationally.
The issue could also come to a head next month, when the body that sets teachers' pay and conditions reports to the government. Leaders of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) last week announced a campaign over pay, calling for an improvement in firefighters' basic pay to £30,000 a year. New Labour has said it will oppose any major pay increase.
The FBU executive has passed a resolution outlining the campaign which is due to be endorsed at the union's annual conference in two weeks time. It says the union wishes to 'avoid confrontation', but if this is not possible 'the executive council will recall conference and recommend that members take strike action'.
Council workers in the local government unions across Britain-Unison, the TGWU and the GMB-have all rejected their pay offer by very big margins. The timetable and pace of the various disputes and ballots over pay vary widely. But they are taking place in a context where rank and file workers are making links between their own campaigns and those in other sections. There is the ongoing revolt among rail workers, who have struck or voted for strikes mainly over pay on half a dozen rail companies.
There have been successful battles over pay by medical secretaries in hospitals in the north east of England. Journalists on local papers in Yorkshire and the north west of England have won pay increases, and on the national Express and Star group of papers too. Those localised battles are continuing, and are feeding the mood among bigger groups.
How we are building the campaign
'PEOPLE ARE sick of payouts to the fat cats while workers struggle to make ends meet.' That is how Rahul Patel, assistant secretary of the Unison union in Westminster council, summed up the spirit behind the pay campaign among London council workers.
He helped organise a meeting of Unison branches across London last week: 'There was a bigger turnout than for normal official regional meetings. It was not just the established activists speaking out. In Camden the highest vote on the consultative ballot for strikes was among school staff, who are low paid and not traditionally the best organised sections. That feeling has pushed the higher up officials to endorse the call for a London-wide stewards' meeting to build for the 14 May strike. There was also strong support for getting big delegations on the May Day march in London.'
Many at the meeting referred to the success of the one-day London teachers' strike as a key reason behind the mood among council workers in London to take action. 'Our strike on 14 May can feed back into the teachers and encourage them to push their union for further action,' says Rahul. That is crucial, because most union leaders are not maximising the feeling for a united fight over pay.
Instead they are seeking sectional campaigns which they hope can win with minimal confrontation with the New Labour government. NUT teachers' union general secretary Doug McAvoy has ruled out calling London teachers out alongside the Unison members on strike on 14 May. But activists in the NUT are looking to maximise solidarity with Unison strikers.
Teachers who defied their national union and set up picket lines during their strike last month found that many Unison members respected those picket lines. Neale Williams, FBU union representative for seven fire stations in north London, spoke about the importance of union meetings being held across Britain to build their pay campaign.
'Firefighters and control staff refer to the London teachers' strike and the fact that rail workers have won pay increases through taking action,' says Neale. 'There is a feeling for fighting for an increase without accepting any strings the employers want. FBU members in London are also saying there should be a fight over London allowances. The national union is saying that we should just focus on the pay formula. But a fight in London would strengthen that campaign.'
London public service workers' rally, Thursday 25 April, 7pm, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London. Called by Unison Greater London. Seakers include Dave Prentis, Bob Crow, Billy Hayes, Bernard Regan and Paul Mackney.
What we think
THE NATIONAL leadership of unions like Unison, the NUT and the FBU have been forced to respond to members' demands for action over pay. But they want to make gains without a serious confrontation with the government. So each union's action is in stages, and is not coordinated with the others.
Trade union activists have to make each official call for action as effective as possible, encouraging the anger of rank and file workers to come to the surface. The 8,000-strong London teachers' demonstration, called initially without national backing, did that.
Organising that feeling can put pressure on union leaders to call hard-hitting action which would most effectively force the government to cough up higher pay. Part of that is building links across the unions among activists to generalise the feeling from one section to another.
That in turn can connect with the growing debate over opening up the unions' political funds to allow support for a socialist challenge to New Labour.