Seeking unity against pay freeze

Submitted by AWL on 2 February, 2021 - 4:59 Author: Ollie Moore
Health workers' protest

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November that pay would be frozen for the 2021-2 round for 1.3 million public sector workers.

The freeze does not include NHS staff, who mobilised on the streets in July-September 2020 demanding a 15% rise, and will surely remobilise when their official Pay Review Board reports in May, or sooner.

The freeze also will not apply fully to the 2.1 million public sector workers earning below £24,000 per year, who will get an increase “of at least £250”, according to Sunak.

In local government, the majority union, Unison, accepted a settlement for 2020/2021 in August 2020 that included a basic 2.75% pay increase. Activists are now looking towards the next settlement (review date 1 April). They want Unison to coordinate with other local government unions for a substantial flat-rate increase.

In education, Gavin Williamson, the minister responsible, wrote to the head of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) in December 2020, saying: “If we carried on with blanket, across the board rises, the existing gap between public sector reward and the private sector would widen significantly. Therefore, it is right to temporarily pause pay awards for the majority of the public sector as we assess the impact Covid-19 has had on the wider economy and labour market.” The STRB’s next report is due in early May.

Civil service workers’ pay is negotiated separately for each department and “agency”, and with differing pay review dates. The main civil service workers’ union, PCS, is working for across-the-board coordination against the pay freeze, starting with “three [online] fair pay days... at the end of January, February and March”.

In transport, the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are technically private companies with the power to set their own pay policies, but rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to TOCs on 29 January to state that there is “no budget” for increased subsidies to finance pay increases. A statement from the government’s Rail Delivery Group said: “It would be unfair to increase the burden on taxpayers by funding rail industry pay rises, and we would only consider increases in exceptional circumstances.”

The rank-and-file-led campaign in the NHS for 15% has set an inspiring model; and some sectoral disputes, or disputes against individual TOCs in the rail sector, may be successful in winning increases. But forcing employers and government back at a national level will require a coordinated campaign.

To stand any chance of pushing the union leaders to act, rank-and-file militants across all affected unions must urgently begin agitating for that approach.

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