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Workers feeling the squeeze—looming struggles over the cost of living

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As inflation rises ever higher, every working class person will soon be made to feel the pressure. Sam Ord speaks to workers already starting to struggle, and says the only response is fighting back
Issue 2789
A graphic shows a drawing of a person's head caught in a vice, while and arrow points diagonally upwards, left to right, like the line of a graph indicating inflation

Rocketing prices will put us all under pressure

From the lowest paid workers to those that once felt they could get by on their pay, we’ll all be made to bear the brunt of ­rocketing prices. With inflation hitting 7.5 percent last week, it’ll take a fight to stop people going under.

Bella from Hastings is a train cleaner for outsourcing company Churchill. She and her colleagues are currently balloting for strikes to win an inflation busting £15 per hour.

“I’m definitely struggling,” she told Socialist Worker. “When I first started with Churchill in 2017, I managed to save £1000 in six months. Now I’m lucky to have £10 left by payday.

“We’re all going to be in massive debt. We’re going to have to start getting payday loans and things like that just keep our head above the water.

“There’s a lot of colleagues who’ve had to open bank overdrafts in the last few years. Come payday you’re skint, but you’ve still got bills to pay, you have to pay rent and buy something to eat.”

Bella said the rising cost of living, coupled with wages as low as £8.91 has meant Churchill’s cleaners have been struggling for years.

Sometimes this can result in dangerous conclusions. A recent survey of Churchill’s workers by Bella’s union, the RMT said, “69 percent reported that they have gone into work while sick because they couldn’t afford not to.”

With inflation rising “it will get worse”, said Bella.

Bella and her colleagues have been working longer shifts and taking more overtime. But she said her “money is not going as far as it used to”.

Bosses at Churchill know the hardships workers face. Bella feels “totally exploited” every time she goes to work.

She said, “I think most cleaners already are signed on or have second jobs as a backup plan because if you get sick or end up in the hospital you’re fucked.

“We’re worried if travelcards go up any again because people won’t be able to afford to get to work. If rent goes up people will end up homeless and in the worst cases, some people may end up dying because poverty is just so bad. That’s how bad it’s going to be.”

The rising cost of living will hit the poorest hardest. Many will now have to choose between eating or heating their homes.

This is because despite rising costs, wages haven’t risen in response.

It follows over a decade of austerity, plus some very recent attacks such as the £20 cut to the Universal Credit benefit and a coming increase in National Insurance payments.

But even workers who previously considered their income relatively stable will begin to feel the strain.

To take just one example, the Tories are set to lift the energy price cap—which limits how much energy companies can charge—in April. It means household energy bills could rise some 50 percent.

Suddenly, expenses workers may have been able to afford—your car breaks down, your boiler needs a repair, your landlord kicks up the rent or your mortgage goes up—become a much bigger hit.

Jas teaches business studies at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVic) in east London. He and his colleagues have been striking over workload, a culture of bullying and academisation threats.

He told Socialist Worker that the rising cost of living is a worry for himself, his colleagues and students.

“I’m worried about heating prices going up,” said Jas. “Petrol prices are high and increasing. I’m walking more but it cost me £80 to fill up my car the other day.”

Jas believes the rising cost of living will have a further impact on students’ ability to learn. Already 50 percent of children in Newham live in households in poverty.

Jas pointed out how students when put into online lessons over the pandemic “were cooped up in one room” with their siblings.

“They were using phones because they can’t afford laptops. I’m worried for them now because parents can’t heat their homes and they’re on the bread line—now is like the tipping point.”

Jas believes that a small fix would be to subsidise train as well as bus travel. Some of his students travel an hour and a half from Dagenham to access NewVic’s facilities.

Many of these students are forced to commute via the underground. If ticket prices increase, “many students could move to different schools”, he said.

“I’m expecting student poverty and the use of food banks to increase. And parents wages just don’t go up with inflation so they’ll see a fall in living standards, this has been happening for decades.”

A large picket line of cheering firefighters

Picketing firefighters in 1977 cheer the arrival of construction workers, who marched in soilidarity despite a decision by TUC leaders not to support the strike (Picture: John Sturrock)

How bosses and Labour tried to make us pay in the 1970s

Whenever the bosses’ system causes rocketing inflation, they’ll always try to make working class people pay.

Prices are rising because firms are trying to protect their profits. Disruption and shut downs during the coronavirus pandemic meant production of certain goods and services, such as building materials and semiconductor chips, fell.

Manufacturing bosses raised their prices to protect their profits, or even to boost them by taking advantage of the reduced supply.

The bosses who buy these materials find that the increased costs eat into their own profits.

So they raise their prices to make up for it. It causes a knock-on effect, where price rises get passed on right down to the goods that ordinary people buy in the shops.

So the cause of inflation is the relentless pressure across the whole of the system to keep striving for profits. And rather than take the hit themselves, bosses decide the solution is to cut and hold down workers’ pay.

But it’s a risky strategy that can lead to explosions of strikes and workplace struggle. In 1975 amid a global economic recession inflation hit 24 percent. Bosses, bankers and the right wing press blamed it on workers’ wages being supposedly too high—and demanded pay “restraint.”

The then Labour government responded with the “social contract”—a deal with union leaders to keep wage increases low. When inflation was still at 16.5 percent in 1976, trade union leaders agreed to a limit of 4.5 percent.

Out of loyalty to Labour, union leaders did their best to hold back struggle. But they couldn’t stop it completely.

In 1976 the seafarers’ union threatened strike action over a long overdue pay award. The general secretary of the TUC union federation, Len Murray, told them, “By god, we’ll make sure no union supports you. We’ll cripple you.”

The first ever national firefighters’ strike took place the following year. The TUC voted narrowly not to back them.

Three major strikes by groups of skilled workers in 1977 collapsed after trade union leaders instructed other workers to cross their picket lines.

The result was what became known as the Winter of Discontent—an outburst of feeling over five years of betrayal and disappointment.

Tanker drivers, council workers, water workers and others struck against Labour’s pay limits. Health workers and local government workers joined them. Many of the strikers were at least partially successful.

But the bitterness and disillusion with Labour led to the election of the Tory Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979.

Today it’s a Tory government overseeing rocketing inflation and bosses’ wage restraint. But we’ve still seen far too little fightback led by trade union leaders.

Many still hope that a Labour government will come in and ease the pressure—even though Keir Starmer, desperate to please the bosses, offers little hope of that.

But just as union leaders couldn’t hold back the pressure on workers in 1976, they’ll also need an answer to the cost of living crisis now. It’s up to every trade union activist to pressure them into fighting.

Inflation figures don’t tell whole story

The mainstream media and Tory government will have you believe inflation has risen to “only” 5.4 percent, up from 4.2 percent the month before.

This is because they use an incredibly flawed measure of inflation—CPI—that exclude many household bills.

A more accurate measure is RPI, which includes all factors.

RPI has soared to 7.5 percent, but even this measure of inflation doesn’t give a clear picture.

As food writer and activist Jack Monroe pointed out, it is usually the cheaper products facing the sharpest rise.

They tweeted, “This time last year, the cheapest rice… was 45p for a kilogram bag. Today it’s £1 for 500g. That’s a 344 percent price increase.”

“An upmarket ready meal range was £7.50 ten years ago, and is still £7.50 today,” they added. “If the price of that had risen at the same rate as the cheapest rice in the supermarket, that £7.50 lasagne would now cost £25.80.”

Supermarket bosses will choose to keep premium products stable to secure the return of affluent customers. This system suits the Tories as their voters are among the wealthiest.

The ruling class will tell us that inflation is at 5.4 percent to deny workers a real pay rise and at best offer them a real terms pay cut.

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