Right to strike over low pay

Since 2004 local government workers have had below inflation awards. Their vote in favour of strike

Next month (July) 600,000 UNISON local government members will take strike action over a 2.45 per cent below inflation pay offer. This is not a decision they take lightly - our members are there to serve the public - but they are facing an unjust pay policy and feel pushed into a corner.

Labour inherited a recruitment and retention crisis in our public services. Morale was low and services were suffering. A lot has been achieved, but we cannot afford to undo this good work. We all want quality public services, but they do not come cheap and workers deserve fair pay and good conditions.

Councils are already struggling to compete for staff with other public and private sector employers – even in low wage areas. If they fall further behind, local authorities will not have the staff to deliver services – let alone work towards making improvements and delivering change.

Local government workers continue to be the poor relations of the public sector. Since 2004 they have had below inflation awards, but the vote in favour of strike action this week underlines the message that you can push people only so far before they say enough is enough.

It is crunch time for our members who provide the every-day services that people rely on - teaching assistants, social workers, care workers, librarians, dinner ladies, lollipop ladies, leisure and parks and garden staff as well as refuse collectors and street cleaners. It cannot be right that 250,000 staff still earn less than £6.50 an hour and they have said clearly they cannot afford to accept another below inflation offer.

Three quarters of council workers are women, who, far from fuelling today’s inflation, are victims of the rising prices of everyday essentials. They are being hit hard by the cost of putting food on the table, spiraling gas and electricity bills and the recent hikes in fuel.

There is not an economist in the country who agrees with Government claims that public sector pay fuels inflation. If the government is serious about tackling inflation they need look no further than the boardroom bonanzas and big city bonuses. They should tackle the corporate greed of the energy
companies BP and Shell making £7 billion profit in just three months.

In the meantime local government workers, who have to use their cars for work, are effectively subsidising their employers – they are left out of pocket because fuel prices have overtaken their mileage rates.

It is a disgrace that tens of thousands of public sector workers cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. I said at our conference last week that we reject Brown’s pay policy. We didn’t elect a Labour
government to watch its core supporters suffer this way. We don’t want Gordon to feel our pain we want him to stand up and heal it.

Dave Prentis is general secretary of Unison

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.