As 600,000 low-paid council workers prepare to strike on July 16 and 17 in support of a 6% rise in their meagre wages, the cause of their anger – soaring prices – shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, gas and electricity prices are set to climb 40% this winter while the cost of food and fuel continues to rocket.
A 48-hour strike called by ever-so-reluctant Unison leaders – who have sat back for years watching their members’ wages fall further and further behind - will make no impact on the New Labour government. Brown and Darling are determined to make ordinary people pay for the economic crisis. The council workers have been offered a below-inflation pay offer of 2.45%, which therefore amounts to a pay cut.
The question is: How can we halt price rises that are eating away at people’s incomes? Millions of families are seeing their cost of living rise by 6.7% this year – more than double the headline inflation rate of 3.3. Official figures show that an average basket of foodstuffs has risen in price by almost 8% over the past year, or £8 for every £100 spent. Even if Unison won its claim, its members would still be worse off by the end of the year.
This is because the major food and energy corporations simply pass on costs where they can as they are in the business of making profits not feeding people or providing affordable fuel. And the corporations sing the same song as the government – prices are soaring because of global “market conditions”. These are quite obviously beyond human control so consumers will just have to grin and bear it.
What rubbish! The pressures are indeed global in nature but their impact is local and within our power to deal with. We don’t have to worship at the altar of the capitalist market if we don’t want to. If Unison leaders were really serious about improving their members’ pay, they could launch a campaign along the following lines:
- Create price committees of producers and consumers. These should analyse the real cost of food and fuel, exposing the profiteering and price-fixing that goes and propose sustainable, not-for-profit alternatives.
- Demand that supermarket chains cut prices. Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons racked up £4.5 billion in profits last year alone by exploiting producers, staff and consumers. Instead of distributing profits to shareholders, the money should be used the money to mitigate the effects of global “market pressures”.
- Redirect government priorities. Just by ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cancelling the Trident nuclear missile replacement programme, state subsidies could be made available to make food and fuel affordable.
- Campaign for social ownership and control. If, as is likely, the supermarket chains refuse to play ball, then the union should win popular support for them to be taken over and run by staff, consumers and local communities with the support of expert, financial, technical and scientific advice.
- Affordable food and energy. Prices should be determined by the costs of production, taking into account sustainable methods of agriculture and processing, the livelihoods of those involved in production, distribution and retailing and the purchasing power of consumers. The same approach could just as easily be applied to energy supplies.
- New political solutions. Obviously, implementing such a programme would require the support of government, backed up by an independent social movement. No one expects New Labour to take such a stand and it’s ridiculous (and a waste of effort) to suggest they do. Just like the Tories, Brown and company are tied to big business interests. So Unison and other union leaders should acknowledge that the old politics is finished and that creative, new solutions must be found.