Some 360,000 local government and school workers began a strike ballot last week and could soon be headed for picket lines. Bin workers, social workers, teaching assistants, librarians and thousands of others in councils and schools across England and Wales could walk out over the government’s latest pay insult.
They would be powerful new battalions in the wider pay fight that already encompasses workers in the NHS, transport, education and beyond. “People need to grab hold of their pay ballot envelope and get it ticked and posted,” says library worker Shazziah Rock from the West Midlands.
She says that for millions of low paid workers like her, every week as a financial fight. Shazziah has never been able to afford to take her children on holiday.
“I’m budgeting ten pounds a day. I dread anything coming in that’s going to impact on me making ends meet. “I go down my shopping list and cross things out—all the time I’m working out whether it’s really a necessity.”
“It’s been a constant struggle since the Tories have been in. We talk about ‘free Friday’ where our real terms pay cuts means we’re essentially working for free.” Unison union members are furious that the Tories have only offered them a pay deal worth a flat rate £1,925 a year.
For council workers earning the average yearly salary of £30,971, that’s an increase of just 6.2 percent—a real terms pay cut.
And for some higher paid workers the offer amounts to just 3.88 percent. Unions eventually accepted a similar deal last year, but, says Shazziah, that increase was quickly swallowed up by the cost of living crisis.
“As soon as we got that it was gone. It went quickly because of the hike in energy bills, food prices going up. As a low paid worker, we’re living day-to-day.”
Shazziah says the angry mood over low pay is spreading other fights over conditions at work.
She said that in Sandwell, workers were able to shut the libraries due to concerns about health and safety. And they’ve won over important issues, such as about whether they’re allowed to have lockers on the premises. These types of battle are helping to fuel a sense that workers can win better pay.
Christine McAnea, Unison general secretary, called on the Tories to resolve the dispute.
“Employers can do far better, but ministers also need to step up to make sure local government is given the funding it needs, so staff get a decent wage and services are protected,” she said.
That’s true, but if the union leaders are serious about winning the ballot—and beating the 50 percent turnout threshold demanded by the Tories anti-union laws—they need to put in far more work.
Rather than just relying on phonebanks to communicate with members and get the vote out, they should be at workplace rallies and gate meetings. That would help create an atmosphere and show the union was serious about pay.
The ballot closes on 4 July. The campaign around the vote should infuse the union’s national conference in June with a sense of resistance. Unison members who vote for action won’t be on their own. All the main unions in local government plan to ballot for strikes.
Some 64 percent of GMB members rejected the Tories’ offer in a consultative ballot, as did 75 percent of Unite members.
The Unison ballot is desegregated by employer—which means it’s more likely to result in local action, rather than a national walkout. That is because it is unlikely unions in every council will meet the threshold.
Winning the ballot will take huge pressure from below. Shazziah, and other activists, have already been producing newsletters about pay, and speaking to members in their workplace.
She said fury at the government is helping to drive the fight. “I tell people that instead of paying us properly the government is paying to have bars in Westminster.
“The people at the top are raking in the money. Where’s our share? We’re going to have to fight for it.”
Historian John Newsinger writes
All out for Palestine