One million take part in UK’s public service workers’ strike

In what was described as the largest industrial action in the United Kingdom in years, a million public service workers walked off the job on July 10 and went on strike for one day.

The massive action was coordinated by the UK ‘s Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the country’s public service unions including  Unite, Unison, the Public and Commercial Service Union (PCS), the Fire Brigades UnionGMB, the National Union of Teachers, Northern Ireland Public Service Association (NIPSA) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT).

The strikers were demanding an end to the national cap on wage increases for public service workers and a fair pay increase.

“Across the public sector, workers are on strike today to say enough is enough,” said Frances O’Grady, TUC’s general secretary. “Year after year, pay has failed to keep up with the cost of living. Public sector workers are on average more than £2,000 worse off under this government.”

As part of his austerity program, Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, froze the pay of  public service workers. In 2013, the freeze was lifted, but a 1 percent cap on wage increases was put in place. The Cameron government wants to keep the cap in place until 2018.

O’Grady said that half a million public service workers in the UK currently make less than a livable wage.

“They want us to work longer, pay more in (to our pensions) and get less out … we have tried to have negotiations with the government, but they are not listening, so we have no option but to strike,” said Charles Brown, a 52-year-old firefighter from London to the Guardian.

Brown was joined on strike by other fire fighters, teachers, local government workers, school support staff, home care workers, social service workers, court workers, civil servants, garbage collectors, and others.

The strikers were also protesting the austerity policies of the Cameron government.

In addition to freezing and capping the pay of public service workers, the austerity program cut public services, especially for those in need.

But while the government was freezing wages and reducing government services, it was also cutting taxes for corporations and the rich.

Not surprisingly, income inequality accelerated.

“Today, the five richest families in the UK are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent of the entire population,” says a report by Oxfam, an international anti-poverty and anti-hunger organization. “That’s just five households with more money than 12.6 million people.”

Prime Minister Cameron and his supporters argue that the UK’s economy is growing again thanks to its austerity program, but the TUC says that benefits from growth have not trickled down to the working class.

“The economy might be growing again, but across the UK real wages are still falling,” said a media release issued by TUC a few days before the strike.

And while the nation’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.6 percent, it still remains more than 2.5 percentage points above pre-recession levels.

A report commissioned by Unison, the UK’s largest public service union, says that a fair pay raise for public service workers would help the economy grow in a way that would benefit more people.

The report, entitled Lifting the Cap: The Economic Impact of Increasing Public Sector Wages, finds that increased government expenses resulting from a public service pay increase would be partially offset by higher tax revenue and lower government benefit costs resulting from the raise.

Furthermore, as a result of the multiplier affect, every 1 percent increase in public service pay adds £470 million in value to the economy and creates 10,000 to 18,000 new full-time jobs.

The Unison report was part of a broader effort to build public support for the strike and a fair public service wage increase. That effort appears to be working.

Unite, whose members also took part in the strike, recently released the results of a poll conducted by a market research firm showing that 61 percent of the public back the workers’ right to strike. The survey also found that 48 percent of the public supported a £1 per hour wage increase for local government workers while 35 percent did not.

The success of the strike apparently shook the Cameron government, which announced that it will ask Parliament to make it harder for public service workers to strike.

The Prime Minister wants to require a majority of union members to authorize a strike before it would be considered legal. Currently, the law requires that a majority of voting members authorize a strike.

Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, called the Prime Minister’s reaction hypocritical.  “The whiff of hypocrisy coming from Cameron as he harps on about voting thresholds is overwhelming,” said McCluskey to the Guardian. “Not a single member of his Cabinet won over 50 percent of the vote in the 2010 election, with Cameron himself getting just 43 percent of the potential vote.” (Guardian 7/9/14).

The July 10 strike is the latest in a series of actions undertaken by TUC and the public service unions to win a fair pay increase, and the unions plan to keep applying more pressure.

“It is important that we maintain the pressure for meaningful negotiations on pay and our campaign issues,” said PCS in a message to members. “So we have now called a ban on all voluntary overtime between 11 and 31 July.”

The National Union of Teachers is recruiting members to lobby Members of Parliament and to distribute leaflets to parents explaining the reasons for the strike and the union’s vision for improving education.

Unison said that it would soon present its a manifesto for public services to the Labor Party’s national policy forum. The manifesto challenges the country’s mainstream parties, including Labor, for their lack of support for public services.

At a rally of strikers in Bristol, John McInally, PCS vice president, told the audience what it would take to win a fair pay increase and protect public services.

“No more excuses, no more unions taking action on their own,” said McInally. “Everyone knows how we can defeat the pay freeze and austerity too – by joint coordinated action across the public sector.”

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