But what a hospital cleaner, tanker driver or civil servant gets paid compared to, say, a commodities trader or chief executive of a bank is political. And the government’s policy of holding down public sector wages in a time of rampant inflation has made it doubly so.
The TUC Congress this year was characterised by a sense of crisis, with many thinking Labour would lose the next election. This raised questions about how to respond and whether alternatives to Labour were possible.
Illusions that Gordon Brown would turn away from neoliberalism have been shattered, and few remain convinced that New Labour can be won back. I took part in a debate with union leaders Bob Crow and Derek Simpson, over whether unions’ political voice had to be through Labour, in front of 200. It is telling that such debates are being conducted by union general secretaries with such audiences.
At the same time, delegates’ anger over pay, privatisation and attacks on the welfare state was tangible. Some in the movement still argue that mounting a fight now will let the Tories into government. The idea that we might rerun the “winter of discontent” was a recurring theme. But if the Tories get in, it will be down to the abject failure of Brown and his predecessor to stand up for those they should be representing. Trade unions should not make the same mistake.
In addition, it is now clear that almost everything Brown and company have planned is supported by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Minor details may differ, but none of them propose better pay for public servants, higher taxes for the rich, an end to privatisation, or an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them agree with work and pensions secretary James Purnell’s disgraceful assault on the welfare state. If we don’t start to resist now, it will be that much tougher later on.
When I took Purnell to task over his green paper at Congress he accused me of wanting the Tories in power. But his attack on the welfare state goes further than even Margaret Thatcher could have dreamt. According to him, unemployment rose in the 1980s because the Tories were too soft on claimants. The PCS emergency motion committing the TUC to a major campaign against Purnell’s welfare green paper was carried without a voice raised against it. Meanwhile his plans are supported by the Tories and UKIP.
Also carried unanimously was the motion on public sector pay, which committed the TUC to encourage joint campaigning over pay at all levels, and to organise days of action including a national demonstration.
In both cases, we know we will have to work hard to make sure that the motions are carried out, building cross-union alliances of activists in every town and linking up with the other campaigning groups who share our concerns. If we do not, it is clear that none of the major political parties will do it for us.
This absence of political representation lies behind the joint initiative announced by the PCS, RMT, FBU and NUJ. From now on, as the Trade Union Coordinating Group and chaired by John McDonnell, we will coordinate our political campaigning and lobbying, both inside parliament and out. While this is a relatively small step, it represents a break from the past, when Labour was seen as the only show in town. I hope it can strengthen other joint initiatives such as Public Services Not Private Profit.
There is an enormous thirst for solidarity in action in the unions, even if this is not always evident on the TUC General Council. We now have a chance to respond to it. As I write, the PCS is launching a ballot of its public sector membership for industrial action over pay, which should spread throughout the autumn. We will again make every effort to coordinate that with other unions engaged in the same struggle.
Those who see no alternative to Brown, other than the same attacks delivered by the Tories, offer no hope to workers and their families. By defending ourselves with vigour we will show that we do not have to let tribal political loyalties hold us back. At the same time, we do need an alternative political voice for trade unionists. That will be built through industrial struggle combined with political campaigning.
Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the PCS, the civil service workers’ trade union.
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