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A fairer distribution of wealth is what we need

STEPHEN SMELLIE surveys the situation facing NHS workers north of the border

Over the past few years workers in local government, education, the Civil Service and the NHS have seen the value of their pay plummet as wage freezes and restraint have combined with the rise in the cost of living. 

This poisonous mix has created real poverty among public servants, with reports of workers relying on benefits and foodbanks becoming common across the country. 

Nurses, classroom assistants, care workers, firefighters and civil servants have all suffered. 

Trade union leaders have talked the talk of battles over pay with photo opportunities and fiery conference speeches.

And yet there has been no upsurge in industrial action to fight for improved pay. 

Explanations for this usually include views that workers are fearful for their jobs and their terms and conditions, too many household budgets are so tight that even the loss of a day’s pay can lead to missing mortgage payments and struggling to feed the kids. 

Some on the left have sought to argue that the workers have been held back by conservative leaders fearful of industrial action and who refuse to call generalised and co-ordinated action. 

However it is too simplistic to interpret a lack of industrial action as a sign that they are not willing to take action or that those union leaders have done nothing.

The movement for a living wage has gained momentum and scored notable successes. 

In Scotland, government, NHS and council workers have all gained the living wage through political campaigning and negotiating, without the need for industrial action. 

The pay freeze was ended after campaigning and pressure built up on politicians. 

This campaigning included organising “fair pay days” of campaigning in workplaces and lobbying councillors. 

Workers in higher education have taken a number of days strike action. 

However there has not been the explosion that was expected and hoped for. Ballots have been held in different sectors with members rejecting strike action at that time.

The reasons are possibly more complex. There is no doubt that public-sector workers have been influenced by the main political parties’ acceptance that austerity is necessary. 

The constant media reinforcement of this message— apart from in the pages of the Morning Star — has overwhelmed unions’ efforts to present an alternative analysis. 

The barrage of “expert” opinion which has sought to portray an image of the private sector being hard hit while the public sector has been protected, and the denial that private-sector wages have risen faster than those in the public sector, have contributed to workers’ lack of confidence in their ability to bring about change.

Another factor has been the levels at which the discussions on pay have been pitched. 

Workers offered a measly 1 per cent have considered whether taking strike action in order to gain an extra 0.5 per cent would be worth the loss of earnings.

However there are signs that the situation may be about to change. Health and council workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are being balloted over the next few weeks. This could lead to co-ordinated action with PCS and teachers.

In Scotland the picture is different. The health ballot south of the border relates to the coalition’s refusal to implement the proposed 1 per cent advised by the Pay Review Board, whereas the Scottish government has agreed to implement it in full. 

Teachers’ unions have accepted the current 1 per cent pay deal. In local government both Unite and GMB accepted the imposition of 1 per cent for 2014-15 with only the majority union Unison refusing to accept it. 

Unison’s Scottish local government has agreed to step up its campaigning on pay, with an eye to 2015 as much as a constructive response to the imposition of 1 per cent in 2014. 

Members will be consulted on whether they wish to consider industrial action as an option in this campaign. 

However, rather than making industrial action the sole focus, it is proposed that a variety of forms of industrial action be developed as part of, and to build, the campaign. 

This could include one-hour stoppages, work-to-rules and selective action as well as the traditional one-day strikes.

The point is to see this as not the last resort in a dispute but as tools that can be used to raise the issues and win the arguments among the membership, the public and politicians who ultimately make the decisions on pay.

Pay is a fundamental issue for trade unions. However it is also a long-term issue. For over 30 years the share of the country’s wealth going to workers’ pay packets has been in decline while that going to shareholders has been rising. This transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich requires more than a short burst of industrial action to reverse. 

It requires a long-term commitment to a sustained strategic, political and industrial campaign to change the structure of wealth distribution, workplace democracy and relative power within the workplaces and society. 

No matter the result of the current ballots, the campaign for a fairer distribution of wealth to the workers through higher wages and increased benefits and universal services must be built and continued.

Stephen Smellie is deputy convener of Unison Scotland.


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