Wednesday, September 12, 2007

TUC Congress: Will Unions Co-ordinate Action Against Pay Cuts?

Following Monday's debate on trade union freedom, the other biggy of the week was on Tuesday afternoon, on public services and public sector pay. The TUC had attempted to sedate us all in advance, with guest speeches from not just the CBI but also government ministers Jacqui Smith and Peter Hain - the latter telling us that the government, trade unions and employers had reached an "historic consensus" on pension reform, prompting me to heckle "I didn't!".

The two main composites were 12, on public serivces, and 13, on public sector pay. There was never any doubt that they would pass unanimously, but the content and fire of the speeches would also give a clue as to union leaders' commitment to see the fight through.

Proposing Composite 13, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka challenged Gordon Brown's argument that you need to restrain workers' pay to defeat inflation. He quoted Brown in saying that "The price of a job should never be substandard pay", pointing out poverty pay levels among civil servants. Mark announced to great cheers that yesterday, workers in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had voted by 76% to reject their pay offer. He might have mentioned (but didn't) the ironic fact that those workers' boss, John Hutton, would be given a big chunk of Congress time tomorrow to tell us what a good bloke he is.

Just when I began to fear that Mark's speech would be all rumbustious fat-cat- and government-bashing, but nothing on how we would fight back, he set out the case for co-ordinated industrial action, civil servants alongside health workers, posties, teachers and others. 200 people had attended PCS's fringe meeting on the subject, and he called for the TUC to call a meeting to co-ordinate action immediately Congress finished. Good stuff.

Seconding, Christine Blower offered the solidarity of the NUT to other public sector unions. She stated that if in November, the teachers' pay review body failed to deliver decent pay rises, then the NUT would call industrial action co-ordinated with other unions. Christine did not explain why this had to wait until November - after all, how likely is it that the pay review body will go against government policy and give teachers the rise they deserve?!

A speaker from the Prison Officers' Association pointed out that Prison Service managers will be getting their pay rise in full, whilst the lowest-paid workers in the service - ancillary staff - will have their rise staged, pegged to 10p per hour instead of 15p. "How will that 5p difference fuel inflation, while tax breaks to private equity won't?!", he asked. The POA also joined the call for co-ordinated industrial action.

A UCU speaker expressed gratitude to the PCS and POA for demonstrating that members can be won to a programme of strike action. However, I see more grounds for concern as to whether union leaders can be won to strike action, especially strike action of more than token days. Rank-and-file members will always be willing to fight, especially when given leadership they can be confident in.

And to me, that is now the issue. The Congress debate was welcome - a clear declaration of intent for co-ordinated industrial action to break Brown's public sector pay cuts. But the demand for co-ordinated action must not become an excuse for union leaders not to fight unless every other union is doing so too. And the action they co-ordinate must be more than isolated days out to show token protests rather than a strategy to win. Now we have the Congress policy, we need rank-and-file pressure to make the union leaders deliver.