Fiona Twycross AM writes for the Staggers on today's public sector strike action.
The TUC’s calculation that public sector workers are on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government came to power is timely, published yesterday, a day ahead of the largest strike action to take place since 2010. The TUC highlights how the people affected by continued pay restraint – the home helps, refuse collectors, teachers and firefighters, among others – are often the public servants on whom we depend on most. These people are currently facing the prospect of another four years with pay rises significantly lower than the increase in the cost of living.
Just under half a million public sector workers are paid below the living wage. It was pointed out to me recently that some of these lowest paid workers might effectively lose more than the equivalent of the 1 per cent pay rise being offered if they go on strike. The implicit argument was that it would be better to put up with, what by 2018 will be over a decade of falling wages, than fight back. There comes a point, however, when gratitude that you have a job is outweighed by a sense that fairness ought also to be included in the mix. This is unsustainable. There is a limit to how long people can make do, juggling bills and food costs and getting by with rising rents and the threat of increased mortgage rates. Industrial action among unionised workers is sometimes an almost inevitable and entirely justified last resort.
A government that tells us "we are all in it together" when we can all accept things are truly tough needs to recognise the implied contract that everyone will benefit when things – as they tell us they are – start to improve. This is not happening. Public sector workers are being frozen out of the recovery in a high-handed manner that understandably breeds frustration and disillusionment.
This government has done little to help those on low pay. In work poverty is on the increase and we know many of those who resort to emergency aid from food banks are from working households. The voluntary approach to the living wage is currently failing and will only work if ministers and Mayors literally put their money where their mouths are. The Brixton Ritzy cinema workers, who will also be on strike tomorrow, are a case in point. If employees are told that if their employer can afford to pay a living wage, they should, will at some point stop asking politely. Equally, if Scotland and Northern Ireland can negotiate to resolve their fire pensions dispute, it is hardly surprising that the Fire Brigades Union believes the Westminster government should follow suit, and therefore escalate their action accordingly when it refuses.
At the other end of the scale, high paid executives apparently need to be rewarded to ensure they do their jobs, and we are not seeing the kind of restraint that Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has urged banks to adopt. The High Pay Centre, an independent think tank on pay inequality, calculate that today the average salary of a FTSE 100 chief executive so far this year is £2,208,829 and that a CEO at this level will take home more in three days than an employee earns in a year. To these people – and seemingly to the government – £2,245 is neither here nor there.
Strikes are always a last resort and, with individual strikes getting limited publicity, it is hardly surprising that trade unions are choosing to call co-ordinated action. Trade unions are there to defend their members and there are 2,245 reasons for a strike to take place now.
Fiona Twycross is the London Assembly Labour Group economy spokesperson