With 5% inflation on the cards, a three year deal offering 2.75% in year one, 2.4% in year two, and 2.25% in year three looks increasingly like a bad joke. Unite members have voted decisively to reject this disgraceful pay offer, and I’m proud that we’ve done so.
The relentless rise in inflation made headline news today. CPI (the ‘massaged’ rate of inflation) rose to 3.3% in May – the most rapid increase in the rate of inflation for ten years. RPI, the real rate of inflation, has increased to 4.3%. The Bank of England is now predicting that CPI will rise above 4% this year, meaning that the real rate of inflation for us will be over 5%.
I spoke yesterday at a ‘Public Services Not Private Profit’ fringe meeting, at the Unison Conference in Bournemouth. Public sector pay wasn’t particularly central to the debate, but there was a strong sense of anger from the meeting that public sector workers are being expected to pay for the Government’s economic crisis.
This was an impressive meeting, with a range of speakers making the links between the multitude of attacks now taking place across the public sector, and stressing the need for trade unionists to unite in defence of our services.
Jon Rogers, from Unison’s National Executive, spoke of the impossibility of Unison ‘going it alone’. He talked about the lack of enthusiasm from the Unison bureaucracy for joint union working, referring to ‘Unison chauvinism’. To laughter, he went on to criticise Unison’s decision to back Gordon Brown rather than John McDonnell for leader of the Labour Party. The explanation given to Unison members – and I recall the same arguments being put in Unite – was that we couldn’t back a loser!
Mick Shaw from the FBU spoke about the way privatisation is just beginning to edge its way into the Fire Service. Fire engines used to be maintained by British Gas, rather oddly, and have been maintained since by the succession of private companies that have taken over the contract. The Ministry of Defence has recently announced that it can no longer provide emergency cover in the event of a fire fighters dispute – the army is far too busy waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re therefore going to see emergency cover put out to tender to the private sector. Mick joked that the FBU could be the first union ever to take industrial action against the privatisation of scabs.
I spoke next. The real practical problem in a short meeting is how to cram the multitude of attacks on the NHS into a few minutes. I talked about the new ‘reforms’ of the last few weeks – the plans to hand over the ‘franchise’ to run so-called failing hospitals to the private sector; the disgraceful instruction to every PCT in England to set up at least one polyclinic; and the latest piece of lunacy proposing to remove the ‘license to do business’ – the Government’s words, not mine – from hospitals that fail hygiene tests. I described the real reasons behind hospital acquired infections like MRSA and C. Difficile – the high bed occupancy rates you get when hospitals are forced to operate as businesses, and the privatisation of cleaning services in the NHS.
I went on to outline the need for unity across public sector unions, and particularly the need for unity across NHS unions. The interests of health workers are the same, whether we’re in Unison, Unite, or any other union. When we’re united, we’re stronger. The challenge for all of us is to turn our paper policies into real concrete action to fight service cuts, job cuts and privatisation. We need to combine a principled defence of the NHS with a principled defence of our members’ interests.
An activist involved in the important Fremantle dispute spoke next, getting a standing ovation from the whole meeting. Fremantle is the private company that took over care homes in Barnet, maximising their profits through savage attacks on the pay and conditions of staff. The Fremantle worker described how staff have ended up working 14 hours a day to take home £250 a week. This meant families still living with in-laws, because they couldn’t afford a home of their own. Mothers worked such long hours they were having to look after their kids by phone – she often heard her colleagues ringing home saying ‘Now don’t fight with your brother’ and ‘Have you done your homework’. This was what privatisation really meant. It was a disaster for care home residents and for care workers.
John McDonnell MP rounded up. He talked about the reality of privatisation , saying, ‘They sell you off, then they come for your pay, your conditions, and as sure as night follows day, then they come for your pension’.
John was robust in his criticism of some our union leaders. He talked about ‘Warwick 2′ negotiations and the agreement of the General Secretaries of our biggest unions – including Unite and Unison – to drop the inclusion of the Trade Union Freedom Bill or equivalent legislation from any deal with Labour. (This is not something that has been discussed or agreed by the Unite Executive Council). He argued that our unions have to become fighting unions to grow, and have to work with other unions to win.
John was also scathing about the Government, talking about the apparent ‘collective suicide pact’ within the Parliamentary Labour Party. MPs seemed unable to grasp that the Government was alienating group after group of its core supporters. He said we were handing over government to a Tory government as a direct result of Labour’s policies – particularly Labour’s attacks on the public sector.
John also talked about the possibilities for change and resistance. In particular, he described the emergence of a new generation of activists, apparent for example in the joint strike action taken by PCS, UCU and NUT on 24th April. He described the London demonstration and rally as a ‘jubilant and joyous occasion’.
Union meetings can sometimes be quite flat and stage managed affairs. This meeting was neither of those things. This was a vibrant and exciting meeting of trade union activists who understand that we have to fight to defend our public services. The anger and resistance that were there today have to be broadened out across our movement.