J10 loom band bracelets in union colours. Photo: UNISON
10 July: Why public service workers are taking strike action
This week’s strike by public sector workers is a manifestation of the anger and frustration they feel about the sustained attack on pay and pensions that has played havoc with their living standards and seems to have no end in sight. Ministers revealed this week that public sector pay restraint looks set to continue into 2018
Strikes are always a last resort and, as such, it is significant to note that in local government, the fire service, the civil service, the NHS and in our school system, the government has increasingly undermined and restricted unions’ ability to negotiate. Industrial action is an inevitable consequence of the government’s refusal to sit down and hold meaningful talks with public service unions.
This lack of engagement with the unions is symptomatic of the government’s strategy of making public sector workers shoulder the burden of their public spending cuts. There can no room for negotiation while the government attempts to shrink government spending to a proportion of GDP last seen in 1948.
But at a time when demand for high quality public services is increasing, it is a false economy for the government to continue to suppress pay, destroying morale and making it harder to recruit and retain quality staff. At some point something will have to give and it is the service users who will suffer. The campaign for fair pay for our public service workforce is a campaign for all of us who rely on those services.
Let’s be clear that five years of pay freezes and below inflation pay caps have had a hugely damaging impact on the living standards of public sector workers. TUC analysis shows that the average public sector worker is £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government took office. In local government, where almost two thirds of the workforce are paid below £21k a year and around half a million workers are paid less than the Living Wage, workers will have experienced a real terms pay cut of 18% by the end of 2014.
A home help who has been at the top of her pay scale for four years was earning £13,189 at the beginning of 2010. She now earns £13,621 – an increase of just £432 since 2010. But had her pay increased in line with inflation, she would now be earning £15,820 – which means that she’s lost out on £2,199 in real terms. Under the same analysis a refuse collector on the top of his pay scale has missed out on £2,949 in real terms. He was earning £16,440 in 2010 and is now on £16,770 – an actual increase of just £330.
We all expect and deserve high quality public services. But increasing workloads on ever-declining pay will have a detrimental effect on the quality of services. The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest that over 400,000 jobs have gone in local government since the government came to power. The figures are alarming, Manchester City Council for example has reduced its non-school staff by a third.
This scale of job loss through compulsory and voluntary redundancies, recruitment freezes, and the deletion of vacant posts combined with the pay freeze means that those left behind are expected to do more for less.
Stress levels are increasing and morale has been slashed. A staggering 86% of respondents to a UNISON survey of local government members reported that stress levels had increased. 84% said that stress at work was affecting their job performance and 83% reported that stress was also affecting their personal life. The Local Government Association’s latest workforce survey that finds that stress, depression, anxiety, mental health and fatigue are the top cause of sickness absence among staff.
While the government and local authority employers are talking about re-wiring our public services, they are doing their very best to undermine the very workforce that is expected to deliver. It is the service user who will lose out in the end.
This is not confined to local government. Central government departments, the fire service and our school system are all subject to a 1 per cent cap to the pay bill, with workers across the board facing real terms pay cuts. At the same time, they’re facing attacks on other aspect of their terms and conditions, most notably in their pensions, paying more, working longer and getting less.
As the economy continues to recover and public finances improve, it is a source of frustration that public sector pay shows no signs of picking up, unlike in the private sector. NHS workers wonder how it is that fair pay is unaffordable when the Department of Health returns over £2bn to the Treasury and local government workers will find it hard to understand that their pay is being held down while local authorities have boosted their reserves by £2.6bn in the last year alone. Public sector pay is being used to shore up public finances, not reward the workers who are delivering services under increasing pressure.
No wonder then that public service workers are angry. And yet the government has left little room for manoeuvre. Unions continue to seek talks but the imposition of spending cuts and pay caps has left nowhere for employers to go, despite some public sector employers voicing their concerns about the impact of pay restraint.
Unions in the health service were happy to abide by the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body (PRB), a system established precisely to come up with fair and affordable pay recommendations. But the government over-ruled it and imposed a 2 year pay deal, with no role for the PRB next year. Local government unions have sought arbitration at ACAS but local government employers have refused to meet. The government has undermined and fragmented collective bargaining across the education system, with greater autonomy for schools to break from existing agreements. While the teaching unions continue to meet with Michael Gove, there’s little sign of progress on any of the fundamentals. And in the fire service, the government continues to keep the FBU at arms’ length, refusing to negotiation around changes to the firefighters’ pension scheme, treating the union as just another respondent in a wider consultation process.
This is a recipe for industrial unrest. Strike action is always a last resort but with pay restraint imposed from on high and a government committed to undermining collective bargaining, it is clear that public sector workers feel they have little choice but to vote in favour of industrial action.