Pay, people and power

 Mark Serwotka gave the fifth Jimmy Reid annual lecture on 5 October 2017 in Glasgow. It was entitled ‘Pay, people and power: the progressive case for public services’. Here, we print part of the lecture on the fight for decent public sector pay.  

[Mark began by paying tribute to Jimmy Reid as ‘a giant of the movement’ and for his role in the UCS work-in in ‘shaping Scottish industrial consciousness for trade unionists and socialists in the many years since’. He said he was ‘incredibly proud to be giving the lecture’.]

Tonight, I am going to try to follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Reid by drawing upon the lessons of his life in order to ask how we unite the working class movement to challenge austerity, fight for decent wages and fight for a better society. If we follow the lessons of his words in being principled but not dogmatic, we need to understand why we need to unite in this struggle and what the pitfalls in doing so are. We need to remember Jimmy’s words – there is more unites us than divides us in the working class movement.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what public sector workers do day-in and day-out for the people of this country. … They’re under-valued; they’re underpaid; they’ve had their pensions pilfered; their pay downgraded; and their redundancy schemes dropped. Now is the time for us to unite and challenge these injustices. … Tonight, I want to talk about what we need to do industrially and what this means for us politically.

We welcome the fact that both the Scottish and British governments have started to make some concessions on public sector pay. But it comes with a poisoned chalice because there will be an attempt to say that there are deserving and undeserving public sector workers – where those in uniforms are more deserving that those that are not in uniforms. All public sector workers play their part and all are deserving of a pay rise.

We need industrial unity to fight for better pay and we need to overcome our political differences to fight neo-liberalism and austerity. We can have the serious political debate over, for example, the Scottish national question and Brexit, without it dividing us industrially.

My starting point is to reject the view that workers in Scotland have been protected from austerity more than workers in England or Wales. … And, we need to recall there is £123bn of a ‘tax gap’ through avoidance and evasion. That is evidence of a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

So when it comes to reversing cuts in public spending, wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor or bullying bosses in the either the public or the private sector, we have to ask ourselves why have we not already successfully stood up to these challenges and we are we going to do differently this time around?

We have to move beyond just passing resolutions and understand that if we can beat the Tories on pay, the future of this weak government is also then called into question.

Well we can unite around three central demands. The first is to end the pay cap for all public sector workers. The second is that the funding for pay rise this must be new money so that no pay rises are paid for with the loss of jobs or services or conditions. And, the third is that we are not interested in anything less than the rate of inflation as that would be just another pay cut. … PCS, along with a number of public sector unions, is demanding a rise of 5% or £1200, whichever is the greater, for all.

These demands can unite us all even though there are many, many different sets of pay negotiations throughout the public sector. … We cannot let the Scottish Government or Labour councils off the hook when they say ‘we are with you but we cannot to anything when Theresa May holds the purse strings’. There are things that can be done now …

For those who say this is piece in the sky, let’s remember how the mass November 2011 pension strike came about. People said there were too many different schemes with so many different rates of accrual. But it was the action of the four unions – PCS, UCU, ATL, and NUT – that acted as a catalyst by taking action in June 2011 that persuaded the other unions that it could be done.

The divisions in the working class movement that we have seen after two referenda can be healed not just by a united fight on pay but also by the articulating a positive vision of a just and fairer society.

Mark Serwotka is the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union. Born in 1963 in Cardiff, he started work at 16 in the Department of Health and Social Security as a clerical officer. He was elected general secretary in 2000 and then again in 2005, 2009 and 2014. Mark re-joined Labour in 2015 and is a strong supporter of Corbyn, having campaigned for him for Labour leader in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he had a successful heart transplant at Papworth Hospital

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