When the state cuts benefits, when politicians or the media make a big scandal about how much those not in work are getting, it is always in the name of fairness. For Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the long term unemployed will have to accept work placements, training, or just turn up and hang around in an office all day if there is no work or training for them, in order to be “fair for those who need it and fair for those who pay”. That’s when they are not claiming that toughness and a punitive approach is the kindest thing for those who are sick, disabled or unemployed. But is it true?
Trying to make us forget there is a working class
The attacks on benefits have accelerated since the recession of 2008, so that we have seen the cap on benefits, the bedroom tax, and the vilification of claimants. The economy has not yet recovered from that recession, with GDP still more than 3% below the level of the first quarter of 2008. And it certainly isn’t only the unemployed who face attacks. The whole working class is facing a rise in the state pension age, with teachers and firefighters the latest to face a rise in the occupational pension age as well as greater costs and reduced pension benefits. Young adults will no longer get housing benefit at all – adding to the number forced to continue living with their parents. The whole public sector is facing a 1% pay cap, with NHS staff facing a pay freeze. Many workers face the threat of their firm being shut down if they don’t accept worse pay and conditions and a number of redundancies, most recently those at Grangemouth. And we all face a rise of approximately 10% in energy prices from all the main suppliers – so much for competition and shopping around.
This is the ruling class idea of fairness – every part of the working class is affected by crisis, it’s tough, but it’s tough for everyone. In order for this argument to work we have to forget that we are part of the working class and accept the divisions and competition imposed on us: ‘strivers’ (those fortunate enough to have a job) against ‘shirkers’ (the unemployed); public sector against private sector; teachers against NHS workers in the struggle for scarce budgetary resources.
The reality is that we do have a common interest as workers. Let us take the example of making the unemployed work for their benefits and its so-called fairness to those who ‘pay’ because they are in work. If my job can be done by one of the unemployed on work placement, how soon do I either have to do the work for less or even lose my job? In capitalism there is always a larger or smaller number of unemployed, and every ‘striver’ with a job is also at risk of being forced into becoming an unemployed ‘shirker’.
It’s the same with every attack. If 18-25 year olds cannot get housing benefit that means very often they cannot get independent housing whether or not they have a job, especially in high cost areas such as London. This affects the whole family with the parents putting up their adult children.
Attacks on those in work are no exception. If the state caps pay rises at 1% in the public sector, significantly below the official inflation rate of 2.7%, then through competition this has a downward effect on wages and salaries in general. Of course, when it comes to the pay freeze in the NHS this has a much wider effect. Just like the attacks on the unemployed, it comes with a pretence of fairness and a vilification of the victims. The excuse is that those working in the NHS already get an annual increase due to seniority, which is doubly dishonest – firstly because Agenda for Change is being imposed to introduce performance related pay, and secondly because the annual increases only apply to some of the staff for part of the time; and overall as older staff retire they are replaced by younger on the lower pay scales. The vilification comes in the form of blaming those who work in the NHS for the deterioration that comes from poor staffing levels, poor training and perverse incentives imposed by the latest targets.
With the whole working class under attack, we cannot fight back piecemeal
The attacks affect us all, so how can we all fight back against them? Recent strikes by school teachers, firefighters, and university lecturers and support staff show that there is a great deal of discontent. The issues are very similar when not exactly the same: an increase in pension age for both firefighters and teachers; the question of pay in schools, where performance related pay is being brought in, and universities, where a 1% offer goes nowhere near overcoming the 13% deterioration in real pay; as well as the issue of increased workload for teachers. Meanwhile the CWU has called off strike action in the Post Offices and Royal Mail in a joint statement with management about future negotiation over the threat to jobs (about 1,500 under threat with the proposal to shut 75 offices) and to pay and terms during the Royal Mail privatisation.
But the actual strikes have seen the workers kept completely separate from each other. The NUT and NAS/UWT teaching unions called a series of regionally divided, one day strikes in October, calling off further action for negotiation. The university unions and Fire Brigades Union called one day and 4 hour demonstration strikes respectively in the same week but on different days. As usual with union strike action workers have been kept separate even when fighting on the same issues at the same time. The strike has been taken out of the hands of workers and made into an adjunct to union negotiation. The chance for workers to meet and discuss with others facing similar attacks in different industries has been avoided – because what is a necessity for the workers in taking their struggle forward is a danger for the forces of the ruling class ranged against them, the bosses, the state and the unions.