As tens of thousands of workers, activists, and youth gather in Manchester this weekend to protest outside the Tory Party conference, Rob Sewell discusses the eye-watering inequality in modern-day Tory Britain, and the fight against the crisis-ridden Conservatives and their failed programme of austerity.
This weekend will see tens of thousands of workers, activists, and young people take to the streets of Manchester in protest against the Tories as May and co. hold their annual party conference.
Workers are seething as they see their real pay being constantly eaten away, year after year. Prices are going up yet wages are lagging behind. UK Inflation is officially at nearly 3%, although for working people it is a lot higher in reality. The Retail Price Index has risen by nearly 4% over the last 12 months.
Public sector wages, meanwhile, have been capped since 2010, meaning an effective wage cut for these workers every year. Prices for clothing, foodstuffs, petrol, council tax, gas and electricity are all on the rise, increasing the cost of living and driving down living standards, month by month. Workers, such as nurses, have been forced to go to food banks for help to get by, given the downward spiral on the pay front.
Such has been the fall in real wages over the last ten years that there has not been anything to compare it with for more than 150 years!
Bosses lining their pockets
While workers' wages are held back, company boardrooms have been popping the champagne corks! Profits have been booming. It is clear that the less paid out in workers’ wages, the more goes to profits, in the form of huge pays rises for bosses and handouts to wealthy shareholders.
Last year, Britain’s top bosses “earned” on average £4.5 million per year. This means that the average worker would have to work for 160 years to earn the annual pay of a FTSE 100 chief executive! The bosses-to-worker pay ratio today is 129 : 1. In 1998 it was estimated to be just 47 : 1.
Adam Applegarth, the former boss of Northern Rock, which went bankrupt 10 years ago, was “earning” £1.3million, half as a basic salary and half in bonuses; his pension pot increased by £266,000 each year. Just before the crash, he sold his shares making him a nice £2.6 million, while his shareholders lost everything.
Under New Labour, the rich got richer. Peter Mandelson said he was perfectly relaxed “with people becoming filthy rich”. They certainly have got even richer under the Tories.
This month, the management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company published an interview with a business school professor under the headline “re-imagining capitalism to better serve society”. But that will never happen; they are just trying to fool us. Capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system, where the rich and privileged are always on top at the expense of the working class.
While the Tory government is now promising a still paltry below-inflation 1.7% rise to police and prison officers, the rest of the public sector – nurses, teachers, firefighters, cleaners, etc. – will have to wait.
The fear is that any new increases in pay will come at the expense of existing departmental budgets rather than from the Treasury. The Tory government has after all said that the cupboard is bare, so don’t expect a general rise. Of course, they can find a spare £1 billion to pay-off the DUP to prop up the government but that is another matter.
Britain apparently can’t afford to pay low-paid workers more, yet MPs have seen their basic pay rise by £15,000 over this last decade of austerity and the bosses are certainly laughing all the way to the bank with what they have pocketed. This whole scandal is an insult to working people.
“The economy we build must be one which truly works for everyone, not just a privileged few,” said Theresa May without a hint of irony.
TUC: call a general strike!
No doubt the government is intending on hiding behind various Pay Review Bodies regarding decisions on salary levels. But 55% of public service workers are not covered by such bodies. Clearly, any pay rises will have to be fought for.
So, under considerable pressure, the TUC has now agreed to push for a 5% increase for public service workers and to co-ordinate strike action if necessary.
This is about time! In the past, they have sat on their hands, while the bosses have been getting away with murder. It is time to make a stand. Workers are frustrated and looking for a lead. The magnificent example of the McDonald’s strikers is certainly one to follow.
The idea of co-ordinated strike action is welcome. Rather than separate claims, where workers can be picked off one at a time, unions must strike together. After all, the motto of the trade union movement is united we stand, divided we fall!
It is about time that the trade unions organised united and collective strike action to secure decent pay for all. The last time there was any sort of united union action was over pensions in 2011, an action which was then left to dissipate with no result.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, says a general strike would be a last resort. But they have tried everything else and failed. Unified action, which needs to be organised around a one-day general strike and a mass union campaign in every town, city, factory and college would offer hope to millions. This is what the TUC and the trade unions need to do. Such a mobilisation would force the bosses and government to retreat.
Organise and mobilise
Unite leader, Len McCluskey, has raised the idea of illegal industrial action to challenge the government. But the reaction from fellow trade union leaders has been muted, if not downright hostile to the idea. TUC sources put the likelihood of such action as between "zero and nothing".
Some officials are worried that such action would lead to the sequestration of their funds. Others want the union laws scrapped before moving. They must realise that the levels of frustration amongst their members over pay restraint could well mean the government's higher thresholds for industrial action could be exceeded anyway.
If there was a real campaign, this would be the case given the mood. Unions must not use the excuse of the Tory laws to prevent action from taking place.
The left-led civil service union PCS will hold a consultative ballot next month to test the water on calling a strike, to be followed hopefully by a real ballot for action.
Unfortunately, it appears that some trade union leaders have already thrown in the towel before the fight has started. One of the biggest public service unions, Unison, is said to be cautious about co-ordinating action with other unions, preferring a softer approach.
Pleased as they are with the Corbyn-led Labour Party's willingness to support co-ordinated strikes, the focus of their lobbying efforts is now on Tory MPs, we are told. Combined with a public campaign, they say, this might be more effective than asking workers to lose pay by going on strike. But such an weak approach is like shouting at a (Tory) brick wall.
This softly, softly tactic has been tried over the years and has never worked. Millions of workers are now looking to the trade unions to do something concrete to prevent living standards falling even further. Action not words are needed.
Unite and fight!
The rank and file must apply the maximum pressure to bear on their leaders to act. Of course, union leaders who drag their feet should be replaced by those who are prepared to fight. This means the democratisation of the unions with the election of all officials by the members, with the right of recall and officials to be paid the average wage of a skilled worker – the members they represent. If this was done, they would soon start fighting for pay rises with rather more urgency!
The Tory government is on its knees. There is a golden opportunity to win a 5% wage rise for all workers – as a minimum. In reality, the fight should be to eliminate poverty pay across the board and for all workers to be paid a living wage of at least £500 a week.
If they say the system can’t afford it, then to hell with the system! Socialist policies have never been more relevant in the fight against inequality, poverty and the capitalist system which is to blame.