Thursday, 11 September 2008

Unions ready for pay battle

by Daphne Liddle

CHANCELLOR Alistair Darling last week at the TUC conference in Brighton tried to pull off the impossible – to convince trade union delegates that if public sector workers could restrain themselves from fighting for fair pay the current economic crisis would be solved in a few months and everyone would be better off next year.
To cries of “rubbish”, he said that Britain was in a good position to ride out the global credit crunch, even though this would mean workers accepting below-inflation pay rises and big rises in food and fuel bills.
He warned that pay rises above the planned two per cent level would lead to inflation and unemployment.
Darling tried to appease delegates’ anger over huge bonuses being paid to City speculators. “A bonus should be for hard work, not big mistakes,” he said, “Excessive bonuses, which encourage traders to take excessive risks, at a time of easy global credit – one of the major reasons for the global credit crunch. We need to learn the lessons to prevent this happening again,” he added – as if this were the first capitalist crisis in history rather than a regular recurring cycle.
The unions were not taken in. GMB general secretary Paul Kenny said the performance was an effort to warm the delegates “but was only as warm as a toaster that had been unplugged for two hours”.
The big public sector unions had already agreed to coordinate a series of strikes for pay rises that at the very least should match the rate of inflation – PCS is already balloting. But they did reject a motion calling for a general strike.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber spoke up for public sector workers: “We have shown that you cannot create world-class services with a workforce battered and bruised by change, sapped of morale by a thousand reorganisations, and crippled by pay awards that do not begin the reflect the true cost of living.
“And don’t let anyone tell us that the government can’t afford fair pay for public servants. If it can spend billions on consultants, billions on tax breaks for UK plc, then surely it can find the money to give Britain’s teachers, prison officers, civil servants and local government workers the fair pay they deserve.
“But let us be clear about this: working people are not the cause of inflation; they are the victims of it.”
The rank and file delegates backed the fight for better pay. PCS member Andy Reid said: “The pay settlement is simply insufficient. The real rate of inflation is five per cent or more. Unless the Government changes its minds, it’s going to become even more unpopular.
“We have to work together to change things. I wouldn’t have any problem with a wider strike. But we are all working together. If we are united the Government will have to listen. If they will not listen to the force of our arguments we will have to make them do so.”
Unison delegate Lisa Mannion said: “People are really angry. My colleagues and I are keen to come out in industrial action. There hasn’t been this sort of strength of feeling for years, when pensions were the biggest source of dispute. “Everyone is fed up with the situation. The unions have got to work together. The Government hasn’t been listening.”
Many delegates were angry that the Government was trying to blame workers for inflation. Aslef delegate James McGowan said: “The Government’s standpoint is not good enough. Blaming public sector workers for inflation is wrong. It’s driven by private sector pay and executive pay. It’s just a political football.
“I was in Warwick recently for Labour’s national policy forum and Gordon Brown didn’t give unions the deal they wanted. The Government will have to listen to us at some stage.”
Unison deputy general secretary Keith Sonnet moved the composite motion that demanded “days of action including a major national demonstration against the Government’s pay policy” and the delegates backed it.
Sonnet told the delegates: “We have a clear message for the cabinet meeting today in Birmingham: we demand fair pay for public service workers – we demand it.”