UNISON members join the campaign at Wallasey town hall.
Public servants need a #PayRise: Stories from the North West
One of the strongest themes we’ve heard on the North West leg of our Britain Still Needs A Pay Rise tour has been what’s happening to wages in the public sector. Traditionally seen as a sector of “good jobs”, the years since the crash have seen a dramatic reversal.
In Wallasey, I talked to council parks and environment worker Paul. He’s been keeping the area safe, clean and smart for 38 years now, or as he jokes: “picking up a lot of dead animals”.
When Paul started, the department had four times the staff it does today. Partly this means that a lot of work doesn’t get done – they focus first on the growing list of things that are unsafe or broken and don’t get the time for improvements. But it also means workloads have gone up a lot.
There hasn’t been an increase in pay to match the increase in work either. Paul tells me that he recently found his old P60 from 2010 whilst tidying. He was shocked to find that it was higher than his most recent one. A change in leave calculations means his wages, and those of his colleagues, are lower now than they were six years ago, cancelling out even their below-inflation pay rises.
It’s making life hard, but Paul keeps his good humour whilst telling it – “you need a sense of humour when you pick up dead animals all day”, he says.
Also with the local union branch are Angie and Gill, two local librarians. They’re passionate about the service they run for the community but are demoralised by the extent to which it has been cut back. Libraries now only open half weeks, but all the time more people are being referred to them to help with job searches and coaching, amongst many other things.
They too have suffered personally from the government’s pay policy, deliberately raising public servants’ wages by less than inflation for years (and some years by nothing at all). A few years back, they say, you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of local government workers when you thought of low paid workers – public sector jobs were seen as good jobs. But now that’s all changing.
We hear it in West Kirby too, talking to the local rep Sue. As a leisure centre receptionist, she’s on one of the lowest pay grades, and year after year after year of seeing her pay cut away by inflation have made it even worse.
Her biggest worry is for her children, now adults. All her working life she’d got on with it and made the best of her lower wages, expecting they would be able to get better jobs and earn more for themselves when they grew up. Now they’re adults though, and she’s seeing them trapped in low-wage jobs too – there aren’t enough good jobs around these days.
Matty is a pool guard at another local leisure centre and says he sees it putting a strain on colleagues of his generation. He knows colleagues who have had to give up their houses to move back in with parents, or who are having to go to foodbanks at times to feed their families. “Housing costs, utilities, they don’t equate to your wages. Times are so tight.”
All over, we hear the same stories about the pressure on wages. Many have seen their real-terms wages fall by 10% or more. But as regional NUT secretary Pete Middleman tells us, it’s just as demoralising for workers to see the cuts being made to the essential services they’ve worked so hard to provide to their communities. Teachers have faced successive cuts to their standards of living, but also now face huge and damaging cuts for schools across the country.
We all rely on public services, and we rely on the people who provide them. Year on year, they’re seeing pay rises much lower than average rises in the private sector, and they’re being overtaken by the ever-rising cost of living. As Sue told me, something has got to give.
Next week’s election is a time to focus on our growing cost of living crisis. All parties who seriously want our votes need to tell us what they’re going to do to get wages rising again for public servants and across the economy.