The value of average wages has fallen steadily for 12 years.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of the biggest union, Unison, estimates that the real terms wages of her 1.3 million mainly public service members, some at or near the national minimum wage of £9.50 an hour, have fallen by up to 25%.
McAnea says the “mood has changed and people are much angrier”, not just because they feel “cheated” after the pandemic but because they think the services they provide are so poor in some areas that striking won’t make them worse. “Our health workers are saying: ‘We know the consequences of us going on strike, but I’ve had patients sitting in my ambulance for 10, 12 hours. And we need to be doing something that shows the government this isn’t acceptable.’”
McAnea estimates that Unison membership in the care sector has risen post-pandemic by a third to 150,000: in the sector’s whole beleaguered workforce, only “a drop in the ocean,” she says, “but way more than other unions”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady believes what finally ignited the anger was the pandemic.
“Millions of workers got us through Covid,” she says. “For the first time people realised how important their labour was and thought it would be rewarded.” And that the “opposite happened” was a “kick in the teeth”. Shapps “describing rail workers as heroes and now suddenly they’re the enemy” is just one example, she says. Workers, O’Grady says, have also been “discovering what is happening in boardrooms” – to City bonuses, CEO salaries, up 39% last year to £3.4m on average, and company profits.
Sharon Graham of Unite has been especially adept at emphasising employer profits. At Felixstowe docks on Wednesday Graham told several hundred striking dockers in orange hi-vis Unite vests, warmed up by speakers blasting out Bob Marley (Get Up, Stand Up) and Aretha Franklin (Respect), that the company made £79m profit last year, distributing £42m to shareholders. It could pay the workers 50% more and still make a profit, she claimed. “So what’s wrong with asking for 10%?” She then promised to apply “leverage” on management by approaching the shipping companies disrupted by the eight-day stoppage and investors in the holding company, CK Hutchinson, controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Kai-Shing, “the 32nd second richest man in the world”. This is Graham’s trademark technique of what she calls “strike plus”. Having hired a team of “fantastic forensic accountants” to comb through company results, she says: “I want employers to do well, to make a profit. I just want workers to get a better piece of that pie.”
Graham has reduced Unite’s affiliation fees to Labour, recasting the union as an industrial organisation rather than immersing it in the party’s “internal machinations”. Arguing that “parliament has been captured by business” she adds: “Labour’s too scared to say that business is wrong even when there’s profit and workers are taking a pay cut. So now we’ve got to be in the workers’ corner.”
At next month’s TUC Congress, Unite will propose a motion calling on the TUC to “facilitate and encourage industrial coordination between unions so that workers in dispute can … win”. The aim would be to synchronise – or deliberately stagger – industrial action in separate disputes to maximise their impact.
Despite GMB and Unite campaigns at Amazon, the GMB’s attempts to negotiate a bigger rise than the 35p on offer, on hourly rates between £10.50 and £11.45, met with flat rejection despite walkouts. One GMB Amazon member says he is more concerned about the mental health impact of an isolated job “stuck in a cage” on a robotic production line than pay. But, he adds: “Amazon are too big and too powerful. If you had 200,000 members protesting, things would happen. But when you’ve got under 5,000 across all their places trying to do this, they’re just laughing.” Longer term, Unite’s Graham envisages UK, German and US unions pressuring corporate and governmental clients of Amazon’s highly profitable cloud business to require “neutrality” deals allowing them to organise such workers.
TUC research also shows that lower-paid younger workers are likeliest to be in insecure, less unionised private sector workplaces. Most of these “grandchildren” of the Thatcher era have scant knowledge of unions. Yet it also shows “that younger workers are even likelier to support our values than other workers”, says O’Grady. Raising the proportion of unionised workers aged between 20 and 29 to that across all ages – 23.4% – would bring in another 500,000 members.
Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England governor, has argued that workers seeking pay rises to protect themselves from inflation will make the problem worse, declaring that “the people who are least well-off … are worst affected because they don’t have the bargaining power”. Yet since the pandemic, CEO salaries in the top FTSE 100 companies rebounded to an expected average 67 times that of their own employees’ median earnings.
RMT's Mick Lynch rejects Bailey’s “ridiculous prescription” that rather than pull “the many poor people” who are not in unions out of low pay, “the mission of union members who are moderately or modestly paid is to join the very low paid”.
And Graham is adamant that current inflation is the result first of external shock and then from profiteering and price gouging by some businesses.