Public sector pay: The necessity for workers’ solidarity

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In the light of the precarious nature of the global economy, and the gloomy prospects facing Britain - despite Labour's claims of years of unprecedented growth - Gordon Brown's decision to impose a 2% public sector pay limit based on the projected inflation rate was only to be expected. We are told that ‘inflation must kept under control', and that the most effective way to ‘maintain stability' and protect Britain from the anticipated worldwide economic downturn is to accept pay restrictions. Essentially public sector workers are required to tighten their belts in order to hold back inflation. Discipline in the public sector is intended to provide a lead for the private sector, all of which will help prevent high prices and increases in mortgage repayments and, eventually, bring the economy back into line. Brown believes that this process will take around three years and is attempting to keep pay levels below inflation until 2012. This is the basis for the threatened pay freezes and the re-emergence of multi-year pay deals.

In reality it is extremely unlikely that raising, or lowering, public sector pay - or any other wages - will have any significant effect; or indeed any effect at all, on inflation. Brown might want to impress eagle-eyed officials at the Bank of England with his approach to inflation, but the Bank itself says that "overall pay rises averaging 4.5% across the economy are consistent with its 2% inflation target if productivity and other factors are included" suggesting that it also doesn't think that public sector pay causes inflation. Even the conservative "sages at the Institute of Fiscal Studies concur" (The Guardian 16.1.08).

If pay demands don't cause inflation what does? As the article in this issue on price rises shows, you have to look to the massive flight into debt and speculation, and a whole range of unproductive expenditure to see how capitalism's economic crisis is now pushing inflation toward centre stage. It is the decaying world economy that is to blame for higher prices not greedy workers.

So why are the wages of public sector workers being attacked in this way? As a recent leader article in The Guardian (9.1.08) put it, "the real - if unspoken - motivation behind all this is less low politics than the government's urgent need to balance the books. The Treasury has long sailed close to the wind and things became choppier during the autumn". So, "if, as expected the economy slows, the underlying state of the government's bank balance will become more transparent. Reining in the payroll could help restore some health to the public accounts". Britain has the largest budget deficit in Europe and the government is basically running out of money. It's a familiar story; the working class is paying for capitalism's crisis.

Although only just announced Brown's proposals have already provoked reaction within the public sector. Teachers' unions have threatened the first national strike for 21 years in response to a 2.45% pay deal beginning in September 2008. And on the 23 January, according to police ‘estimates', 25,000 police officers marched through central London, their first ‘protest' since 1918, against Jacqui Smith's refusal to backdate their 2.5% pay award from 2007-8. As the crisis deepens, Brown will be forced to remain intransigent on the question of pay. There will be attempts to create divisions within the working class with campaigns proclaiming public sector ‘job security' or higher wage levels in the private sector, when in reality no sector has been immune from the crisis of capitalism. The current period is one where, internationally, because of the force of the economic crisis, we are seeing a resurgence in the class struggle and Britain is no exception. This means that as the struggle develops workers will need to become aware of their false friends: the unions and the left.

Traps of the left and the unions

These loyal allies of the state have already begun to organise ... against public sector workers. Teachers' unions have begun to talk about a one day walk out and Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the NUT, said "he was confident the strike would go ahead. ‘I would be very confident that teachers would be saying yes because of the objective to protect their living standards'" (The Guardian 25.01.08). Dave Prentis of Unison has also commented on the recent pay deals: "this is the most unjust pay policy I've ever seen" (Socialist Worker 19.01.08). But just because the unions declare their sympathies doesn't mean they are on the side of the workers. ‘Days of action' have frequently been used to dissipate and divide the militancy of workers with union rules being used to prevent workers from different sectors (i.e. different unions) struggling together. The unions may sound militant but at the same time they are ‘negotiating' with management. The deal ‘won' by the Communication Workers Union recently should be a lesson to all those who still believe the unions are on our side.

The left, unable to provide an alternative perspective to capital for the working class, are reduced to being cheerleaders for the unions. So, for Socialist Appeal, "the union leaders should all be meeting together and preparing to resist the offer with strike action" (Socialist Appeal No 159). For the Socialist Workers Party "it will take heavy pressure from the rank and file of the unions to make the leaders fight" (Socialist Worker 19.01.08). They talk of the action required from the leaders or the need to put pressure on the unions, in order to obscure the need for workers to take the struggle into their own hands. The truth is that the unions and the left are on the same side, arm in arm with the state, trying to divide the working class and prevent it from developing its own struggle.

With the Police pay deal, it is an interesting reflection of the crisis that even the Police, one of the most privileged sectors in Britain, are unhappy about their pay deal - a sign that things must be bad! Workers should not express solidarity with them as ‘fellow workers', against the arguments of the left when they say that "socialists support police officers' right to a proper trade union and the right to strike. We should work towards bringing the ranks of the police closer to the labour movement" ( As Trotsky wrote, "The worker, who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker". When workers meet police officers during future strikes they will be on opposite sides of the class line.

The needs of the struggle

It's only when workers take control of their own struggles, spreading them to other offices and workplaces, organising across different sectors, holding mass meetings open to all workers, outside the control of the unions, that they are able to defend their own interests. Solidarity is the main weapon of the working class in the fight against the state's attacks, and ultimately the capitalist system, but this can't fully develop if workers are trapped in one workplace, on one picket line. The most spectacular example of this kind of workers' self organisation recently was during the fight against the CPE in France in 2006, but examples, big and small, have emerged internationally, all of them expressing the same characteristics: the development of solidarity across the barriers of age, ethnicity and occupation, and with a concern for the future.

At the beginning of January in the London borough of Waltham Forest refuse workers, threatened with wage cuts of up to £8000 to bring them into line with other low paid workers, staged a wildcat strike blocking the Town Hall with their wagons for an hour. The strike may have been short, and appears to have been quickly recuperated by the unions, but it was yet another expression of the turning point in the class struggle that has been developing since 2003 and marks this period as being full of potential for the working class. As one worker told a local paper (Waltham Forest Guardian 10.01.08): "the bills won't go down will they?" Other "employees, who take home as little as £170 per week without overtime" said that "pay for kitchen staff and lollipop ladies should be brought up" to the level of the refuse workers. The limited actions of the Waltham Forest refuse workers express the same dynamic as strikes as far apart as New York and Delhi: the question of a perspective for the future and the extension of workers' solidarity across all barriers. It is these methods, this perspective, that other sectors of workers need to revive if they are to defend their interests.

There are 5.5 million workers on the public payroll who, when faced with inevitable falling living standards, will have no choice but to fight. The government should be nervous; it knows that the working class is undefeated and, more importantly, that the class is slowly beginning to regain its combativity. The future lies in the class struggle. William 30.01.08


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