‘We save lives – not banks’
Report by Paul Feldman | Photos Peter Arkell
Up to a million public sector workers joined today’s one-day strike against real-terms pay cuts, attacks on pensions and the ConDem government’s austerity policies.
There were picket lines outside council and government offices, libraries, schools, fire stations and JobCentres as trade unionists staged the biggest protest against the ConDems in three years.
Rallies were held in many towns, including London, Liverpool, Sheffield and Brighton. At a London rally, firefighters, wearing T-shirts with the slogan "We save lives – not banks" reinforced the crowd. They have staged numerous walk-outs in recent months in defence of their pension rights.
Charles Brown, a 52-year-old fire fighter from London, said: "They want us to work longer, pay more in [to our pensions] and get less out ... we have tried to have negotiations with the government but they are not listening, so we have no option but to strike."
A two-year pay freeze followed by a 1% cap on wage increases has left low-paid public sector workers worse off in real terms than they were in 2010. One estimate is that average pay is worth £2,000 a year less. This comes on top of changes to pensions that sees workers paying more and working longer before retirement.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, representing many of the country's lowest paid workers, told the BBC: "We've got 300,000 now on zero-hours contracts, we've got a million workers in local government earning below the living wage that Boris Johnson and others talk about, and people are saying, 'we cannot go through another three years of this pay restraint'."
Unfortunately for Prentis, not only does the ConDem government not give a damn, nor does Labour. The party his union endorses has backed the pay freeze and the subsequent pay cap and has pledged to continue with them if elected at the 2015 general election.
For the TUC, the message is even tamer. They accuse the government of “locking” workers out of the “recovery”. General secretary Frances O’Grady said: "Across the public sector workers are on strike today to say enough is enough. Year after year pay has failed to keep up with the cost of living.”
She added that workers “should all get a fair share as the economy grows again". This singularly uninspiring plea to the ConDems to have a heart is an insult to those who gave up what amounts to a significant loss of pay to take action.
The government has taken the opportunity of the deficit to drive down pay and slash jobs across the public sector. Union leaders on the whole have responded with rhetoric but precious little action.
They know the Tories in particular will not be moved by limited action yet union leaders have effectively turned the potent strike weapon into a protest. Waiting for a Labour government won’t do the union leaders or their members any good either.
Now the Tories are threatening new anti-union laws to make the calling of a strike even harder than it already is. No doubt Ed Miliband won’t be shy in backing the proposals.
What yesterday’s action shows is that while working people are prepared to sacrifice to take on the government, their leaders are content to contain their anger and restrict the strike movement.
Prentis told strikers that “something has got to give – enough is enough”. Of course, he was not referring to his own failure, along with most of the TUC, to confront the government since 2010. But he might well have been.
10 July 2014