Today Council workers across Wales will be taking strike action due to the failure of the employers (the Local Government Association) to engage in negotiations with the unions in our ongoing pay dispute. Since 2010 our members have suffered 2 years of pay freezes and a below inflation 1% rise last year. This year the employers have offered the majority of the workforce a 1% rise, which is again significantly below inflation and does nothing to recognise the inflationary losses that have accumulated for our members over the last few years.
In the last 4 years alone, real terms pay has fallen by 18% for Council workers, which means that someone earning just £1000 a month has lost £2160 (more than 2 months wages) a year over that period, which clearly is also having very negative effects on their future pensions as well. The majority of Unison’s members are low paid staff; cooks, teaching assistants, highway workers, carers, administrative staff, and cleaners for example. And for the low paid these year on year drops in salary have been particularly hard to bear. Unison’s own welfare charity has seen a marked increase in applications for help over this period and we are all now far too familiar with food-banks and the concept of ‘in-work poverty’.
And while our members have seen their pay fall they have also seen their jobs get harder and their workload increase. The persistent and continual cuts to Councils budgets has seen many posts lost which have not been replaced, which means additional work for those who are left, and often it is the more experienced staff who are leaving. There is also the additional strain and anxiety of the constant threat of redundancy and re-structure as all council departments look for savings and services are cut back or cut altogether.
But we are told by some, including our employers locally here in Ceredigion, that there is simply no money available to ensure that staff wages keep pace with inflation, and that if more money were to be spent on wages then it means that there would have to be additional cuts elsewhere. We recognise the position that the employers locally are facing with year on year cuts to their budget, however it is clear to us as well that it is not a simple choice between wages or jobs, as we are already suffering from both pay cuts and job cuts and in fact these two challenges are inextricably linked.
Our pay dispute stems from the Westminster Governments policy of public sector austerity. The same policy that is seeing schools, libraries, day centres for the elderly, and leisure centres close all across Britain. A policy that is pulling the plug on communities across Wales. And in a country like Wales where the public sector makes up such a large part of the economy cuts to public sector pay has clear and significant effects on the wider economy (i.e. there is less money in the pockets of ordinary working men and women to spend on goods and services locally). In large parts of Wales too, public sector pay often acts as a kind of benchmark for the private sector, meaning that low public sector pay damps down wages across the board.
We are told that this public sector austerity is both necessary and inevitable, a result of the government spending countless billions bailing out the financial sector following the great stock market crash in 2008. Well if you will forgive me for departing from that manufactured consensus but I am inclined to disagree, based on the following observations:
- Both George Osbourne and David Cameron have stated clearly that they would be reducing public sector spending regardless of whether there was a financial necessity to do so or not. They are not shy in stating that it is their objective to rollback the welfare state and cut the size of the public sector;
- Britain remains the 7th richest country in the world by some measures and indicators;
- There is enough money to find tax cuts for the highest earners and to overlook obscene amounts of corporate tax avoidance (such as the £17 Billion pounds that Vodaphone have recently avoided paying).
Clearly managing public spending budgets requires making choices, but fairly paid and well motivated council staff goes hand in hand with providing quality and good value local services. To be successful our fight for fair pay has to be part of a wider campaign against austerity and cuts agenda, and that wider campaign needs the full and active support of public sector workers if it is to be successful. So if you are concerned about the cuts to services that are happening in your area show your support for the people delivering those services by joining them on the picket lines this Thursday if you can, or better still write to your local councillors, AMs and MPs asking them to voice their support for our campaign and strike action. None of our members takes strike action lightly, but if we are to turn the tide on the austerity agenda and protect our local services and the jobs behind them, then we need to use this campaign of industrial action to best effect in persuading our elected representatives that enough is enough. We need to tell them that we need an agenda for prosperity and an end to austerity.