More than 1m work days were lost to industrial action in December 2022, and February 2023 looks like it could be worse, and every one of the strikers has a strong case for better pay, says ANDREW FISHER (right) in his latest exclusive column for Inside Croydon
The cost of living crisis headlines have made for grim reading, with reports of the UK’s economic recession being the deepest and longest, together with unprecedented strike action, the NHS in crisis, and the collapse of the High Street, across the country, but also here in Croydon.
These are not a random set of misfortunes that just happened to coincide, but the logical consequence of government policies that have cut living standards for a decade.
In London, average wages are down 8per cent since 2008. Given the median wage in the capital, that means the average worker is earning £3,000 less in real terms than they would have been a decade and a half ago.
There are nearly 200,000 workers in Croydon – so taken together, that’s a colossal £600million less demand in our local economy this year. If you wonder why Westfield pulled out of its plans for our town centre, or why shops, pubs or restaurants are closing, then this is a big part of the equation. People don’t have the money to sustain current high streets – let alone grandiose new retail and leisure projects.
Last year shop closures were nearly 50per cent higher than in 2021, with nearly 50 shops pulling down the shutters for the final time every day through 2022. And the Centre for Retail Research predicts that this will get worse in 2023. “A few big hitters may well fail too,” their director, Prof Joshua Bamfield, forecasted ominously.
While retail sales are falling, consumer spending is being artificially boosted by mounting debt levels. At the end of last year, credit card borrowing surged to its highest level for 20 years. With interest rates expected to rise further while incomes fall in real terms, this is a recipe for loan defaults and all the carnage that follows.
If you want to understand why the NHS is in crisis, then you just have to look to wages there, too.
Nurses’ pay has gone backwards for a decade, and so we have record numbers leaving the profession in the last year. The NHS has more than 40,000 nurse vacancies.
We also have fewer GPs now than a decade ago, despite the increased demand for medical services from a larger and older population. Hence the delays in seeing your GP. Improving recruitment and retention is vital to tackling the backlogs, but more nurses and doctors won’t be recruited and retained without better pay.
The other side of the problem is in social care. Thousands of NHS patients cannot be safely discharged from hospitals because the social care capacity is not there. There are an estimated 160,000 vacancies in social care – a sector in which government cuts over the past decade mean that, on average, care workers earn £9.50 an hour. There are better-paid jobs stacking shelves for local supermarkets.
Even with the below-inflation increase in the minimum wage to £10.42 per hour from April, that still puts care work below the £12.45 per hour you can earn working for Aldi in Greater London or £11.95 for Lidl. In a competitive market for workers, the only way for social care to expand capacity would be to boost wages, but this government is not providing local councils with the cash to do so.
Cuts in living standards aren’t the reality for everyone. At the UK’s top 100 companies, bosses’ pay was on average £3.41million, up 39per cent in a year.
Executive pay has soared, and bankers’ bonuses in the City have increased at more than twice the speed of wages since the 2008 financial crash. Far from trickling down, wealth has been hoovered upwards.
So tell me again how it’s nurses who are “greedy” for wanting a pay rise of inflation plus 5per cent – a figure that would only restore their wages in real terms to 2010 levels.
Or tell me how rail workers are “holding the country to ransom” for asking for their pay to simply match this year’s inflation – after three years without a pay rise.
What has been a decade of wage stagnation is now intensifying into the sharpest fall in living standards on record – with average household incomes forecast to fall by 7per cent this year and next.
It is this reality that has pushed workers into an unprecedented level of industrial action – overcoming the most restrictive anti-union laws in Europe to do so.
This has nothing to do with the “union militants” or “political strikes” in the fevered imaginations of editors of right-wing tabloids and shock-jock radio stations. The current wave of industrial action is an uprising of millions of working people who are simply saying, all together, “enough is enough”.
Each union member has voted to go on strike: nurses are striking nationwide for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing’s 106-year history. In many other sectors, this is the first time that several unions have held strikes since ballot thresholds were introduced in 2016 – requiring a 50per cent turnout threshold for the strike action to be legal.
In December 2022, it is estimated that more than 1million working days were lost to strike action as rail workers, postal workers, paramedics, nurses, college lecturers and civil servants all went on strike in disputes.
And if you think that was the high watermark of industrial action, then February is likely to prove you wrong: teachers, firefighters, junior doctors and more civil servants are likely to vote for industrial action this month – another half a million more workers to those already in dispute.
As Croydon has shown, these disputes are eminently resolvable and pay rises just: a three-week bins strike was avoided when Veolia ponied up an extra 8.5 to 11.9per cent; and a bus strike averted when Go-Ahead found 10.5per cent for its drivers. Similarly, after several days of strike action, ASLEF members driving Croydon’s trams settled their dispute after receiving an improved pay offer.
We should all be hoping every worker wins a better deal – because better wages means higher consumer spending and higher tax revenues.
Wages are the big battle of 2023. You can be on the side of workers or on the side of ongoing decline. The choice is yours.
- From 2015 to 2019, Andrew Fisher worked as the Labour Party’s Director of Policy under Jeremy Corbyn. He is the chair of the Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party. Fisher is also the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works, and now writes regular columns for InsideCroydon in a personal capacity
Some of Andrew Fisher’s recent columns:
- No room at the inn? Home Office policies created migrant crisis
- Croydon surgeries where half GP consultations are by phone
- Tory blame game over Croydon bankruptcy points finger at Westminster
- #TheLabourFiles: It’s long past time to clean up the Party
- Forde Report exposes racism, bullying and factionalism in Labour
- Click here for more by Andrew Fisher
- And click here for links to Andrew Fisher’s columns for the i paper
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