Wages: if even the police do it, what are union leaders waiting for?

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29 January 2008

What was remarkable about last week's Police Federation march was not just that it was the police demonstrating, but that it concerned their wages.

Usually, the police only take to the streets to control our marches. One has to go back to 1918-1919, for an example of police industrial action. At that point, the police lost the right to belong to a workers' union, before losing the right to strike. In return, they got the privileged employment status they still enjoy today.

Indeed, how many workers have the benefit of one of the most generous final salary pension schemes, a bottom grade starting wage of £420/w, plus annual increments and local perks, as do the cops? In the case of the Met, the icing on the cake is £60/w London weighting and £66-116/w housing allowance - bringing the Met's starting minimum to £546/w without overtime, rising to £766/w for a beginner sergeant! So it is hard to feel that much sympathy for them. In fact all they are asking for is the backdating of their 2.5% pay rise to last September.

Of course, the Police Federation's leaders may well have called the march for political reasons - after all they are known for their Tory connections. But they were probably also under pressure from a dissatisfied membership, faced, like the rest of us, with fast rising bills, housing costs and prices.

However, the vast majority of the working class is far worse off even, than a new police recruit. Most of us have had below inflation wage increases for years, if any at all. Many of us are on very low wages due to forced part time work, not to mention irregular incomes due to casual employment.

If anyone should be in the streets marching over wages today, at a time when bills, fares and price increases are in double figures, it is the rest of us - workers in the private and public sectors, who still have to win a decent basic wage!

But where do the leaders of our unions stand on this? When was the last time a union leadership put any effort into organising a mass protest in the streets? It is hard to remember!

In fact, when union leaders feel forced to be seen doing something, like the Communication Workers' Union in last year's Post Office dispute, they focus on demoralising manoeuvres designed to take the sting out of workers' militancy - while, in the meantime, negotiating away their rights, as is at present the case with postal workers' pensions.

To defend our collective interests, we cannot rely on these spineless leaders whose main concern is their cosy "partnership" with the employers. We need to build a working class leadership prepared, not only to take our ranks into the streets, like the police, but even more than that, to build up our collective strength across sectional barriers, in the public and private sector. And this is a process that could start right now, in every workplace.