Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Winning the council workers' claim

The 48-hour strike by 600,000 council workers is testimony to the strength of feeling among the low-paid, rank and file of the Unison and Unite unions. Whatever doubts they may have had about striking would surely have vanished yesterday when official inflation figures showed prices rising at their highest rate since 1992.

With the cost of feeding a family shooting up by 10% in a year, the 2.45% offered to council workers by the employers – backed up by the New Labour government – is the equivalent of a substantial pay cut. Eggs have soared by over 37% in price, butter by 31.%, fresh milk by nearly 20% and potatoes by 17p in the pound.

The impact is felt greatest by those with the least amount to spend – those on strike today and tomorrow. In the pipeline are huge increases in gas and electricity, while the cost of petrol rises almost on a daily basis as the global corporations try to maintain their profit margins.

The question is: How is the modest claim for an increase of 6% or 50p an hour more to be won? The government has made it plain that “fighting inflation” is its priority. In ordinary language, that equates to holding down wages in the public sector while prices soar. New Labour is backed by the Tories, who control the employers’ negotiating body.

If union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison are really serious about winning the claim – and there are real doubts about their intentions - they must make this week’s strikes a starting point for a campaign to defeat the government because, make no mistake, that’s what is involved. One or two-day stoppages will not achieve this and run the risk of demoralising strikers.

Unison and Unite leaders must prepare for all-out, indefinite action which is co-ordinated with other unions who have outstanding pay claims, like the teachers and civil servants, some of whom are also out on strike today. A decade of cosying up to New Labour has produced few results, as shown by the 48-hour strike. Now union leaders must listen to their members and totally reject New Labour’s policies, which are aimed at offloading the crisis on to the backs of ordinary workers.

The unions should lead a real fight against inflation which would rouse public support by campaigning along the following lines:

* Creating 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.
* Demanding 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 profits should be used to reduce prices.
* Campaigning for common ownership and control. If, as is likely, the supermarket chains refuse to play ball, the unions should campaign for them to be taken into common ownership and run on not-for-profit lines.
* Reorganising government priorities. 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.

Just like the Tories, Brown and company are tied hand-and-foot to big business interests. If winning the strike involves breaking, even bringing down, New Labour, the government’s demise would be no great loss. Such an event would create a unique opportunity for trade unionists and other workers to discuss new political possibilities as well as real solutions to the deepening economic and financial crisis.

Paul Feldman
AWTW Communications editor

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