After decades of wage stagnation, workers have one option

Croydon’s bin lorry crews are about to start three weeks of industrial action, as train, Tube and now tram drivers are also going on strike. It is often the only course of action that workers can take, writes ANDREW FISHER

‘Poverty pay’: members of Veolia’s bin lorry crews in Croydon are paid less than the London Living Wage

Whenever you hear reports of a “cost of living crisis”, ask yourself this important question: Who pays?

In 1984, Nigel Lawson, then the Conservative Government’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his Mais Lecture. “Over the past 10 years, the workers of western Europe have seen their real earnings rise by around an eighth; over the same period their American counterparts have been prepared to accept a small reduction in real earnings.”

The implication was clear: Lawson believed workers in Europe, including Britain, should be paid less.

The problem for him and his Thatcherite colleagues was that union power in Britain was too strong. So they set about ripping up trade union protections and employment rights so that instead of rising wages, workers in this country could also “benefit” from reductions in their earnings.

In the mid-1970s, the combined value of workers’ wages in this country was equivalent to 65per cent of Gross Domestic Product, GDP, the economists’ measure of a nation’s output. Today, workers’ wages amount to a mere 49.5per cent of GDP.

Lawson and Thatcher believed in “trickle-down economics”, but the evidence shows that since their interventions, wealth has only gushed upwards. Workers have lost out, while corporate profit margins have boomed.

The Office for Budget Responsibility – the independent body set up under George Osborne to provide analysis of the country’s economic outlook – says that average wages in the UK have been broadly stagnant since 2008. They are not forecasting wages to exceed 2008 levels until 2025, at the earliest.

Trickle down: Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson set about attacking workers’ rights

British workers have been subject to the longest squeeze in living standards since the start of the 1800s, at least.

It is in this context that we are hearing more about strike action. The one bargaining chip remaining for many workers is to withdraw their labour, even if it is to cost them a day’s wages, or more. If the employers won’t voluntarily give workers a pay rise, then they have to be encouraged.

Take, for example, Croydon’s bin lorry drivers. These are HGV-qualified skilled workers who are paid £12.51 per hour. The loaders and sweepers on the lorry crews receive just £10.75 an hour – 30p an hour below the London Living Wage. Croydon claims to be a living wage council.

Unless Veolia or the council pays up, they will be on strike from next Thursday for three weeks. And despite the inconvenience, they’ll have my full support.

Unions representing workers across local government have just submitted their pay claim for 2022. They’ve asked for workers’ pay to be inflation-proofed: with a salary uplift of either £2,000 or RPI inflation (which is currently 11.1per cent), whichever is higher.

According to local government unions, council workers have seen an average real-terms pay reduction of 27.5per cent since 2010, due to years of pay freezes and pay caps. Last year local government workers got a pay rise of just 1.75per cent.

The other side of negotiations, the national body working for their employers, said: “Local government continues to face significant financial challenges, which became more acute during the pandemic, having lost more than £15billion in government funding since 2010.”

Representing wealth creators: Mick Lynch of rail union RMT

Officials at the Unite union have said members “will have Unite’s support in any action they wish to take to achieve pay justice”.

The other large local government union, Unison, warned, “Many staff are struggling to make ends meet, and unless they are paid properly many will decide to quit for better-paid work elsewhere.”

It has also been announced that drivers on Croydon’s trams will take four days of strike action in June and July in a dispute over pay. Their demand is simple, a wage increase “in line with the cost of living, so that we are not, in real terms, worse off”, according to a union spokesperson.

On the railways, members of the RMT union gave a strong mandate for strike action on June 21, 23 and 25 – after receiving no assurances against job cuts or inflation-proofed pay. Mick Lynch, the RMT’s general secretary, sent a blunt message: “Our union will now embark on a sustained campaign of industrial action which will shut down the railway system.”

That’s the power that workers have.

It’s a power borne of the fact that they are the ones who do the work and generate the wealth. Workers are the wealth creators. And they can take that away.

Despite the characterisation in some of the British press of trade unions as strike-happy, the British economy loses fewer days to industrial action than comparable countries like France and Ireland. We also have the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe.

Workers lose a day’s pay when they go on strike. No one votes for that lightly. They do so as a last resort because their employer is behaving unreasonably.

And strike action works.

Not long ago, GMB members who worked for an outsourced contractor, G4S, as cleaners and porters at Croydon University Hospital won a 24per cent pay rise to take their pay to the London Living Wage.

It pays to be in a union.

As the old saying goes, “United we bargain. Divided we beg”.

Put yourself in a position to bargain: join a union.

Some of Andrew Fisher’s recent columns:

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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