Members of the public sector union Unison have voted by a 59% majority to strike on 10 July against a 1% pay offer and for a rise of at least £1 an hour.
In the week preceding the announcement of Unison’s ballot result, the National Union of Teachers confirmed it would join a 10 July strike.
Strike ballot results from Unite, GMB, and the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) (all over public sector pay) are yet to be announced, and the Fire Brigades Union has a live ballot that will allow it to participate in a 10 July strike.
Transport for London staff (employed in central TfL administration, rather than by subsidiary companies such as London Underground) in RMT, TSSA, and Unite have already confirmed their participation in the strike.
In addition, Unison is planning to ballot its members in the NHS but activists anticipate that strikes, if voted for, would not happen until October.
The turnout in the Unison ballot was around 14%. This is worryingly low, and suggests real gaps in Unison’s organisation on the ground in local government workplaces. The poor turnout means there is still risk that Unison’s leadership will pull back from calling a strike at all, which could in turn cause smaller unions to climb down. Unison members should be vigilant to this threat.
Activists in Unison and other unions should call emergency meetings to build for a strike — both to put pressure on union leaders to call one, and also to make the strike as solid as possible. If the strike goes ahead, the Tories will probably redouble their propaganda offensive against the unions and push for new legislation requiring minimum thresholds in strike ballots. Unions must prepare a counter-offensive against the anti-union laws, fighting for a positive charter of workers’ rights.
Workers’ Liberty members in public sector unions argue that 10 July must be the start of a campaign, not an end in itself. The recent Unison local government conference discussed the importance of setting further strike dates and the Executive have discussed 9 and 10 September as possible further dates. We need to hold them to this promise.
Other unions should set further strike dates for the autumn as soon as possible, with other industrial and political action in between all-out strike days to maintain momentum and maximise pressure on employers.
Cross-union public sector committees in every area, facilitated through Trades Councils where these have life, or convened informally where necessary, should discuss the direction of the dispute, and plan local activity.
If such steps are taken in the three weeks between now and 10 July, workers too demoralised to even vote in the strike ballot can be sufficiently bolstered and emboldened to participate in a strike, and to push for more action afterwards.
The most unequal country in Europe
Britain is the most unequal of the larger countries of western Europe. Only Portugal is more unequal.
Fuel poverty has been redefined by the current government to count only those who spend more than 10% of their income on heating and also have residual income below the official “poverty line” — defined for 2012 at about £12,000 a year after housing costs.
Since real wages have been falling since 2009, the poverty line has dropped too — you have to be poorer before the government statistics will recognise it. Nonetheless, figures released from the Department of Energy and Climate Change project that the number of households living in fuel poverty will increase from 2.28 million in 2012 to 2.33 million (9% of UK households) in 2014 .
Under the previous measure (10% of income on heating) 4.5m households (17%) would be fuel poor. These are not so much cases of the “squeezed middle” but of those living in poverty unrecognised by the official figures.
This picture of people struggling to make ends meet but not recognised as poor by the government is underscored by a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, called ‘Wages, Taxes And Top-Ups’. This looks at how tax and benefits have affected working families on modest incomes from 1998 to 2013.
While this group saw some improvements in their living standards before 2008, since then both falling real wages and cuts in benefits have hit.
Using their measure of a Minimum Income Standard (a measure of what people believe to be an acceptable minimum standard of living), the research shows that by 2008 the lowest paid 25% of working one parent families had a disposable income £21 a week above this minimum, but £23 below it in 2013. The lowest paid 25% of double-wage-earning families saw a similar fall, while families reliant on one wage saw their disposable income fall from £65 per week below the minimum to £113 below.
For those solely reliant on benefits, the picture is far worse.
The Child Poverty Action Group report “On The Brink” looks at the impact of benefit cuts in London and the social cleansing this is beginning to bring about. The benefits cap, bedroom tax, localisation of council tax benefits and local caps on housing benefits have combined to leave families in receipt of these benefits in London an average of £1,300 a year worse off. In many cases the impact is more than twice this level.
This has helped fuel child poverty in London, with 36% of children in London living below the poverty line. This will only get worse as rents continue to rise and the ability of councils to make discretionary payments to mitigate these cuts is further squeezed.
A report from the High Pay Centre shows a long term trend of Britain becoming more unequal compared to the other members of the OECD (the organisation that brings together the world’s 32 most developed economies).
Forty years ago, the UK had one of the more equal economies amongst the OECD states. Now, only Portugal, Israel, the USA, Turkey, Mexico and Chile are more unequal.
The report seeks to put into perspective the claim by the Conservatives that Britain has become more equal since the 2008 crisis. The measured decrease has been slight. All indicators suggest this is a pause caused by some of the financial losses of the richest in the 2008-2009 crash (the very rich lose more in a crush, at least temporarily), and the underlying trend is still for increasing inequality.
The report shows that in 2011 the average disposable income of Britons was £15,800, 84% that of Germany. However, the top 20% (a much broader group the truly rich) reached a disposable income of £32,800, only a little behind Germany.
The impact of this is that the poorest 20% are much poorer than those in many comparable countries. The 25% with the lowers incomes in the UK received £5,700 in the UK, compared to £7,700 in France and £8,200 in Germany.
If Britain were as fair as equal as the most equal in Europe, Denmark, they would have nearly £2,000 more a year. The poorest 20% in the UK have incomes very similar to the bottom 20% in some of poorest EU states, like Slovenia (£6,700) and the Czech Republic (£5,100).
There is huge inequality within the top 20%. Figures the World Top Incomes Database (2011) show 13% of all income is taken by the top 1% in the UK. If this was redistributed to every household in the UK, each would be around £5,600 per year better off.
If incomes only as unequal as in Denmark, then each household would be £2,700 better off each year.
For a much broader picture of UK poverty see here