With total predictability, the announcement of new rail strikes in the approach to Christmas has been met with attacks on the trade unions. “Mick Grinch” was the not-very-original headline aimed at the RMT leader Mick Lynch. One Sun reporter tweeted that Lynch gave off “pure evil, lazy work shy vibes”.
But far from being the villains, trade unionists are at the front line of the fight to protect incomes. We all need them to win.
The inescapable fact is that people are entering into an unprecedented and sharp decline in their living standards. After Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal statement last week, Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies described the outlook in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s accompanying report as “simply staggering”. Real household disposable income per person is set to fall 7 per cent over the next two years, the biggest fall on record, bringing incomes down to where they were in 2013.
Even before the collapse in household incomes enters its new extreme phase, wages had been falling behind for years. Pressure on working people’s incomes has led to an acute rise in industrial disputes and strikes, now at their most frequent in more than a decade.
It’s not just about pay, either, but the terms on which people are employed. Royal Mail workers are on strike as much about their conditions as their wages. The CWU, their union, sees the strategy of the management as trying to turn it into yet another gig economy company, reducing the service and trying to break or weaken the union. Incomes, terms and conditions go hand in hand. There is colossal pressure to make people work harder for less in a British variant of the American labour market. The Unite union has set up a “profiteering commission” that has shown how average profit margins in the FTSE 350, the biggest companies in the UK, shot up since 2019. Never has the balance between the majority of people struggling and the small number of the richest seemed so unfair.
All of this amounts to deepening social strife. In a few short weeks millions of workers could be on strike, or involved in disputes where a strike is on the cards. Lecturers are back on strike this week. Strikes involving teachers, civil servants, fire fighters, nurses and other health service workers are all possible. The Royal College of Nursing has voted to strike across the country for the first time.
Politics has simply not caught up with the core issue of Britain’s staggering household income decline. As the cost-of-living crisis bites, it will force a change in the political landscape. No amount of discussion about long-term macroeconomic stability will suffice when people demand answers about their immediate living standards. And the first front in halting a slide in household incomes is to be found in the strikes and industrial disputes now under way or in preparation. Every single politician will be asked where they stand.
So Labour cannot afford to continue to refuse to support the workforce in these disputes, nor when it comes to pay in general. Success for the unions will help their members to fend off some of the worst of the attack on their living standards. It is inescapable that they should be supported.
The collapse in household incomes is so severe that it has become a major matter of policy in itself, requiring sustained action to raise incomes and reduce cost pressures. Labour, for example, has made the recruitment of thousands more NHS staff central to its plan for health. But without a plan to raise wages too it will find that plan hard to get off the ground.
Both as the opposition, and as a government-in-waiting, Labour needs its own programme to show how it will solve the wages crisis. The question of pay can no longer be sidestepped.