Britain - the unions' disjointed and uncoordinated action

Winter 2014

Many of the marchers at the 18th October demonstration organised by the TUC, in London, under the banner of "Britain needs a pay rise", were probably disappointed. For one thing, because of the comparatively low turnout, especially since the last such demonstration was held a whole two years ago, so this was the first time since 2012 that workers could come together to protest over their fall in pay and living standards.

What is more, this march was supposed to be the culmination of 4 days of industrial action over the 5-year long pay restraint in the public sector, which in London alone employs near to 2.8m workers. (200,000 in the NHS and 153,000 in the civil service, the rest in local authorities and education) However, the contingent of workers who would potentially have been the largest on such a demonstration, that is council workers, had their 1-day strike scheduled for the previous Tuesday 14th October cancelled at the last minute. Worse, it was done under the pretext that there was a better offer on the table, which there clearly was not. They were conspicuous by their absence on the day.

One other factor was that the mobilisation included workers from England and Wales only. Separate demonstrations were held in Glasgow and Belfast.

So, although those who attended were lively and loud, most were activists from their unions and left-wing organisations, rather than ordinary rank and file workers. The youth and general "public" were also conspicuous by their absence. One could say that unlike some previous demonstrations called by the TUC, this one was not seen to offer an opportunity for workers at large to protest against this government and its austerity.

Despite its initial proclamations about uniting public and private sector workers, the TUC and its unions made no attempt whatsoever to broaden their appeal to embrace the private sector, nor the largest battalion in the working class today - the under-employed (usually not in any union, of course!) and the unemployed.

The truth is that this event was, as always, a stage-managed affair, conceived and organised by the union machineries to fit in with their own narrow-minded agenda, without taking much notice of what workers wanted to express nor what would have been required to convince them that they had a real stake in it. As a result, the union machineries only displayed their own weakness. Today, just 25.6% of employees are in unions, the lowest rate of membership since 1995 - and it showed.

Rally for an absent Labour party

The TUC claimed that 80-90,000 had marched in London - although Unite leader, Len McCluskey said the figure was 150,000! But it is likely that only half the TUC's number (more like 50,000) actually took part and even fewer remained in Hyde Park to hear the speeches. But who would admit this?

One thing is certain, however. That this march was timed so as to be a pre-election rally for the Labour Party. But as it turned out, not one speaker from the Labour Party leadership dared to be associated with it! Although left-Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn appeared at the start, to march with striking workers from St Mungo's, the charity for the homeless, Miliband and his crew are apparently far too afraid of providing the Tories with yet another propaganda weapon against them to take the "risk" of appearing on a trade-union platform! Their shame for their historic roots (and their financial life-line) is not new.

But the absence of Labour Party figures did not stop union leaders like Unite's Mc Cluskey from abjectly appealing to Labour, nevertheless, in a good example of the pot talking to the kettle: "I say to Labour - stop being scared of your own shadow. Don't shrink what you offer the British people. The time for being timid is past. Be brave, be inspired by this march today. Believe that people power and working class movements can change our country for the better." If only Red Ed was listening!

Others among the union bureaucracy joined in with similar empty phrases, notably the Communication Workers' Union leader, Billy Hayes, who said that said Labour should not be pursuing "austerity lite" policies! He had nothing to say about the exit of the Royal Mail from the public sector exactly a year ago, after he agreed to call off the strike to stop it (voted for by 98% of postal workers) and sign up to the ConDem's privatisation - a plan initially legislated for by the previous Labour Government.

Yes, whatever McCluskey may say, most workers know who are the ones who are scared of their own shadows. And unfortunately the long-standing contempt in which union leaders are held by the workforce, including many of their own members, also goes some way to explaining why the mobilisation for events such as the 18th October march was so poor.

Even when the leader of the civil service union PCS, Mark Serwotka, who is generally considered to be on the "left" of the trade-union movement, spoke, his calls for "direct action" sounded rather empty. He invoked the examples the left-Labour MP Tony Benn and the RMT leader Bob Crow, who both died this year. But neither of them ever organised much "direct action", even if they to, spoke about it. In fact, despite making yet more exhortations for real co-ordination of strikes, it was almost as if Serwotka had given up on this. Instead, he suggested joining "Occupy Democracy" on Parliament Square - where protesters aimed to camp in the square for one week "successfully holding it against the police". But for what purpose? According to their own words: "in the shadow of Nelson Mandela's statue, we will transform the Square into a civic space where we can re-envision what our society could be like, with talks, workshops, community assemblies, music and theatre." It's hard to think what could be more remote from the preoccupations of the workers at the receiving end of the crisis - who did not even see the point of turning up for this TUC "national protest"!

It's all about decline

That said, there is no doubt that workers have every reason to be angry about falling wages. There are whole sections of the working class who now regularly visit food banks - including among public sector workers who were previously described as being "better off".

The recent good fortune boasted of, by the lower-end supermarket chains like Lidl and Aldi, compared to the traditional leaders Sainsbury's and Tesco's, are no doubt entirely due to the fact that they sell much cheaper food.

In fact the government's own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, led by former Labour minister Alan Milburn, in its "State of the Nation 2014: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain" report, acknowledges the following facts: that earnings and household incomes are far lower in real terms than they were in 2010 and are still falling, "though they are expected to return to growth later this year"; and that a higher proportion of jobs are insecure and low paid. Overall, adds this report, GDP per head of population is still lower than it was before the recession - which would be bad enough, had social inequalities remained unchanged, but is actually far worse than it sounds given that the inequality gap between rich and poor has become even deeper as a result of the crisis.

It also acknowledges that "one in five children are living in insecure and expensive private rented accommodation with potentially detrimental impacts on living standards and that absolute child poverty increased by 300,000 between 2010-11 and 2012-13". We are told that the number of "working poor" after housing costs are taken into account is ever-rising - and it adds that "independent experts expect child poverty to increase significantly over the next few years". So there it is, from the horses' mouths, so to speak.

So what precisely has been happening to wages since the beginning of the crisis?

TUC researchers have also produced a report. This shows that not only are British workers suffering the longest and severest decline in real earnings since the mid-Victorian era (i.e., the mid-1860s), but today things are even worse: the past 7-year consecutive fall in real earnings - around 8% - has, apparently, no historical precedent, not even during the "Great Depression" of the 1920s-30s, when it was 4%.

There is an interesting historical parallel to be made with the 1860s, though. In 1865, financial liberalisation helped cause the failure of a large joint stock bank which triggered a financial crisis, high unemployment and a fall in wages. But there the historical parallel ends: at the time, as a result of the worsening of living conditions, there was a surge in workers' militancy which led to the extension of the vote to some workers and, three years later, the founding of the TUC...

Today, the killer for most workers is housing costs - especially in London and the south-east of England, but this is also the case in all of the large cities in Britain, from Swansea to Edinburgh. In London, rents increased in the first six months of this year by 11.2%, reaching an average £1,412 per month. This compares to £694 per month for the rest of the country.

Estate agents HomeLet, say that a tenant's gross income should be at least two-and-a-half times the annual rent, for a rent to be considered "affordable". So, to pay the "average rent" in London, a tenant would have to earn £42,360 per year. A Staff Nurse earns an average gross salary of £23,317, per year. Renting affordably in London is therefore out of the question for a single nurse. This salary would however be just about adequate, with a couple of hundred to spare, for living outside of London. Of course all this means, is that most workers - because few will earn over £40,000 a year - have to share flats and houses and that individuals would perhaps be able to rent a box room in a shared flat at £120 per week - if they are lucky.

Wages in the real world

According the Office for National Statistics, the average gross pay for full-time employees is £452 per week. But of course, this average includes the top end of employees as well - like those who work as executives for the City's financial institutions and indeed the public sector bodies too, whose salaries maybe a million or more.

Working full-time on the £6.50 minimum wage (up by 19p/hr since 1st October) means a gross weekly wage of only £260 and just £13,520 a year. This means that even full time workers are in trouble these days. According to the National Housing Federation, 1 in 4 people who are able to claim housing benefit - that is, those whose income is officially considered too low to allow them to pay their rent or mortgage - are in full-time employment.

It has become acceptable, rather than the scandal it should be, that the minimum wage is not the minimum required to live on, but a starvation wage. Indeed for several years now, a "living wage" has been set as the minimum. Promoted by a host of big companies which sponsor the "Living Wage Foundation", with the backing of the Labour Party and many union leaders, this minimum is not what it says on the box. At £8.80/hr in London and £7.65 outside London, it falls far short of providing a wage on which most households can really live. In reality, this "living wage" merely represents the minimum these companies consider they can pay without denting their profits! But the vast majority of workers who do manual jobs like cleaning, who work in security, who are helpers at schools or in the NHS, do not even receive close to this amount. In fact, the government's own figures show that 5 million workers earn less than this so-called "Living Wage".

Of course, a large proportion of this 5-million figure is due to the rise of the number doing part-time jobs, including on zero-hours contracts: as many as 583,000 workers, or 2% of the British workforce, counted between October and December 2013, according to the ONS. Many workers who are paid for just a few hours a day, will not even get a full-time minimum wage, let alone a full-time "living wage". These workers, if they do not have partners or family members contributing to a household income, are living well below the poverty line.

According to the TUC's Economic Quarterly (October 2014), even though unemployment was shown to fall over the past two years, underemployment has grown by 93,000. There are 3.4 million people working part-time who would prefer to work full-time or have more hours in order to raise their earnings above the poverty threshold. The percentage stuck in so-called "involuntary part-time work" stands at 16.5% of the workforce.

The other highly dodgy category which has been growing, is self-employed workers - of which there are now 4.5 million. The median income from self employment is surprisingly low, at £207 per week - and this has fallen by 22% since 2008/9! Of course this becomes less surprising when the nature of such "self"-employment is considered: among men, these are cabbies or construction workers in all trades, and among women, cleaners, domestics, childminders and related occupations. In other words these are not people who have set up a business. And many such workers are forced to register as self-employed by the agencies which actually employ them so that their employer is not liable to pay any of the normal benefits such as holiday pay, sick pay and pensions. The scale of such bogus self-employment accounts for a further lurch into poverty by a large section of the workforce.

And then there is the other end of the scale: between 2000 and 2014 (including 7 years before the financial crisis hit) the median total earnings for FTSE 100 chief executives increased by 278% (according to the Incomes Data Services), while earnings for full-time employees rose 48%. The highest earning chief executives are in the media, marketing and telecoms sectors with salaries up to £7m a year, with CEOs in transport and leisure on £5,095,838 and those in financial services on £4,734,000!

The low-key fight against low pay

The very low level of wages and the drop in workers' incomes over the past 7 years is no doubt why the question of getting a 1% rise or not getting it, became so crucial for NHS and local government workers this year - even though it seems so little - indeed, next to nothing.

Of course, the fact that the union leaderships did not ask for at least enough to make up for what has been lost over the past seven years, exposes their continued reluctance to mobilise their members around demands worth fighting for, for whatever reason - be it to avoid rocking Labour's boat, to preserve their "partnership" with the employers, or because they reject the very idea of the class struggle.

Anyway, the level of wages in both public and private sectors has been falling significantly. So certainly workers of every kind need a pay rise. This is not in doubt. Ever since the pay freeze was implemented by the ConDem government in 2010, continuing the policy of public sector pay restraint begun by the previous Labour government, the need for an increase in real wages had become a pressing issue. But although union leaders kept promising a fight, little was done.

Finally, on 10 July this year, not only was a strike called, but it was for once co-ordinated between civil servants, teachers, firefighters and local government workers. Of course it was conspicuous that the NHS was left out. But this was better than nothing. All these sections therefore struck on the same day and marched in London and in other cities in some numbers, against the pay freeze and the attacks on pensions. Around a million workers took action for the day. However, thanks to the reluctance of the union leaders to follow through and escalate the action, despite the government's refusal to budge on its pay policy, this strike had little effect, beyond the fact that it allowed these workers to see each other and to some extent at least, feel their strength.

The follow up had to wait - until after the summer and after the TUC and political party conference season was over. Indeed it seems union leaders may have wanted to kill two birds with one stone: by letting off some of the steam building up due to the growing discontent among public sector workers, while, at the same time, using this steam to pump up Labour's electoral balloon, in the run-up to a general election which was only six months ahead.

This time, the union leaders again announced "co-ordinated action" and what is more, the NHS was balloted too. But as we saw, their idea of "co-ordination" was to call out each section on different days. The NHS, local government workers, FE college teachers and civil servants - in that order - would take action on consecutive days between the 13th and 15th of October. Then there would be a "national mobilisation" by the TUC for the Saturday 18th October. But unlike in previous years, this "national mobilisation" in London did not include Scottish workers. It was almost as if the working class of Scotland was already in "another country"!

A scene for NHS workers

As to NHS workers, despite the huge fuss and fanfare over their involvement in striking, it was decided that they were only to take 4 hours action on the Monday morning of the 13th October. After that, the idea was to have a 4-day "work to rule" - no overtime to be worked and all breaks to be taken... The state of the NHS and the lack of staff may well mean that even such minimal action has a huge effect. But it really was not industrial action at all, just a gesture and a minimal protest - the very least that the union leaders could get away with.

After a two year pay freeze and a 1% rise last year - that is, a cut in real pay, given inflation, for 3 years - the independent NHS Pay Review Body recommended that all NHS staff in England should get a 1% pay rise from 1 April 2014. However, as the government continues to assert that the NHS just cannot be afforded any more - what with the ageing population and ever-increasing costs of drugs, etc., the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, cancelled the recommended across-the-board increase, claiming that to pay the 1% in question, 4,000 nurses' jobs would have to be cut.

Why he chose the emotive issue of nursing numbers to make his point is obvious, of course. Instead, he said, only those NHS employees who do not receive annual pay increments - small salary uplifts that recognise a person's skills, duties or length of service - would get the 1%. Moreover, the 1% being received by some staff (only those at the top of their pay band, in fact), would be a one-off payment which would not be consolidated into their pay. This means it is not paid on unsocial hours, overtime, call-out or standby payments, and will not count towards pensions.

The consequence of Hunt's stance was the very-long-in-coming decision by the unions involved, to ballot for industrial action: 68% of those taking part voted for strike action and 88% for action short of a strike.

This 4-hour strike among NHS workers was the first one over pay, in 32 years! And it was the first time ever that the College of Midwives (founded 133 years ago) had decided to strike. So in that sense, it was "historic".

But not all NHS workers were involved, not by far, since only a fraction is even unionised today. The media did make out that 400,000, almost half the NHS workforce, would be on strike. But in fact this is the number affected by the 1% pay rise (or not, as it happens) and not the actual number who were on strike.

In fact, the majority of nurses are not in the unions which organised the strike action - i.e., Unison, the GMB and Unite. They are members of the Royal College of Nursing College of Nursing - which did not even ballot for strike action, even if it is campaigning for a pay rise. And of course this time doctors were not involved.

Worse, other sections of the NHS workforce were also excluded. Like radiographers - probably the section which has seen the worst degradation of its conditions under pressure of the cuts and privatisation by Labour and ConDems. Throughout the NHS they have been allocated to staff banks that cover several hospitals and usually offer zero-hour contracts only. Staff must sign up to monthly rotas that can change at short notice. On top of that, they must also check their rota allocations, not knowing how many hours they are allocated. But they were to stage a separate 4-hour walk-out on 20 October - as if their predicament was not caused by the same bloody-minded cost-cutting imposed by the government on everyone else in the NHS!

But back to the 400,000 "13th October strikers". This was the formal notice issued by Unison on the 13th October: "UNISON wants the NHS to be properly funded so that it can have enough staff who are well motivated and fairly paid. Our campaign is for:

- immediate payment of the 1% consolidated sum to everyone, as recommended by the NHS Pay Review Body;
- the living wage for low paid staff;
- an above inflation pay rise for 2015-16;
- a commitment to future pay rises that will restore the value of NHS pay."

The UNISON head of health, Christina McAnea was very apologetic: "We know health workers don't take strike action lightly or often... but we also know a demoralised and demotivated workforce isn't good for patients."

The strike was well-supported in the end it seems, even though the logistics of organising emergency cover were probably hard to surmount because of the bare-bones staffing which prevails on the ground. But then, it was only a 4-hour stoppage on the Monday morning...

The fact that ambulance crews were not only stopping work for 4 hours, but also refusing overtime, may well have been the reason that the Health Department called on 120 soldiers to drive ambulances in London, while 148 police officers from three forces were deployed to help respond to non-life-threatening 999 calls.

However now the question is "what next?".

A scandalous local government sell-out

To the utter dismay of workers and their shop stewards in local government, first Unite, which has the smallest local government membership - and then the other union leaderships of GMB and Unison - called off their planned strike. It was meant to have followed that of the NHS workers, and coincide with another strike which was called off for the Tuesday: that of the London Underground workers in the RMT!

This decision to go back to the negotiating table and talk about a derisory new offer - which was worse than the previous one in fact, was undoubtedly one of the reasons for the lower than expected turnout on Saturday for the London TUC march. The workforce was disgusted - and the activists' efforts in mobilising for the strike and demonstration, wasted. Condemnations and resolutions have been pouring in from branches of all the unions, all over the country ever since. We can quote the following from Camden Unison, since it says it all:

"This branch condemns the decision taken by UNISON's NJC committee to suspend strike action on 14 October and consult on new 'proposals'. We believe that this is a profound mistake that leaves Local Government workers facing further real cuts in pay and undermines the battle against government imposed pay restraint.

"The proposal, of a 2.2% increase for most workers over two years with more for the very lowest paid, delivers no more than the 1% already offered for most workers in 2014/2015 and slightly less than 1.2% for 2015/16. It effectively accepts pay restraint not only this year but through the first year of the next government.
"We believe that what is proposed cannot be seriously considered as a basis for a settlement:
- 2.2% increase payable from 1/1/2015, covering pay years 2014/15 and 2015/2016.
- Larger increases for the very lowest paid on Spinal column points 5 - 10 (from 8.56% to 2.32%)
- No back pay but unconsolidated payments of £100 for most workers, £150 for scp 8-10 and £325 for scp 5-7.
- Further small unconsolidated payments in April 2015 to bring the amount paid up to the equivalent of 1% for 2014/15
"The proposal fails to deliver the Living Wage for the lowest paid - and indeed in those authorities where it has already been achieved the lowest paid could get no increase at all.
"Calling off the action just as health workers were set to strike as part of a coordinated week of action leading up to the TUC demonstration "Britain Needs a Pay Rise" on the basis of such a proposal, that the NJC committee themselves could not recommend to members, makes no sense.
"We agree
1) To recommend rejection of the proposals and reinstatement of industrial action, coordinated with other unions where possible.
2) To use all the resources of the branch to campaign for this in the consultation process
3) To urge regions and branches to exercise their democratic right to recommend and campaign for the same
Branches should also pass the motion requisitioning a Special Local Government Conference."

One can hope that this immediate response from a substantial section of the workforce at ground level against the sell-out of the union leaders will mean that the local government workers attempt to take control of their fight out of the hands of the union leadership - and that they appeal to their fellow workers both in the private and public sector to do the same. Because this is the only way that there is any possibility of forcing the government and the private employers to pay up.

What next?

It is along these lines that other workers will have to construct their own fight back in the future. It makes little sense for sections to go out and fight on their own - even if there is the idea among certain workers (firefighters being a case in point), that they are so indispensable that they do not need to seek the support of their fellow workers from other areas. And crucial too, is for the so-called "organised working class" - that is the workers in unions - to include in their ranks those who are not unionised and indeed the very many for whom this is not even a proposition - that is, the ever-growing ranks of casual workers.

As workers, we need to keep in mind that we have just two real weapons - the removal of our labour and our numerical, collective strength. The issue is not even to "hit production" as such. Because, from the experience of our forerunners we know that, above everything else, what strikes fear into the hearts of the capitalist class and their men in government is to see workers acting solidly together, alongside workers from diverse workplaces and diverse origins. Of course they fear for their profits, but the organised strength of the working class is always a threat to their stable "order".

Wasn't it this precisely this kind of spreading action which caused politicians to draft legislation like Harold Wilson's and Barbara Castle's "In place of strife", put forward by Labour in the late 1960s and used as the model for Thatcher's anti-union laws of the 1980s? The last thing the capitalists want, is to see workers acting across their sectional boundaries - and thus as a powerful class and formidable enemy which is capable of taking the operation of society into its own hands. And that is exactly what tells us that we can and should. We need to recall the opening lines of Marx's Communist Manifesto of 1848 and how these reflect the fear of capitalist classes of the time for the potential cross-border combination of workers in struggle: "A spectre is haunting Europe... the spectre of Communism", writes Marx. This spectre is more than ever within the reach of the working class today thanks, precisely, to the influx of diverse workers from Europe and beyond, potentially rejuvenating the class's ranks and its fighting spirit. Grasping the opportunity may be challenging, but it is surely the way forward.