Up the Barbara

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Add up housing costs and average wages and £30k looks modest.

It seems to have come as quite a shock to lots of different people that train drivers on the London Underground already get paid £30,000 a year. Strike a light, guv, they must all be 'anging aht in penthouse suites up the old Barbara*, an' no mistake! Up to a few years ago, anybody getting this kind of money--even in London--would be doing pretty well. But it's by no means a spectacular whack in 2002.

According to the most recent official figures available, the average wage for the entire workforce in London up to April 2002 was £624.10 a week. This is the equivalent of £32,453 a year--or just a bit more than the drivers are getting. What these numbers don't tell you, of course, is that this average includes some people at the top end who earn quite a bit more and just as many down the bottom who get nowhere near it.

In the City of London, for example, more than 10 percent of the men in suits who seem to get the most upset when the entire metropolis grinds to a standstill regularly earn in excess of £2,000 a week. At over £100,000 a year, this is more than triple what any of the train drivers are on--and only fair, when you think about all the deep stress and self sacrifice involved in working out the likely percentage on the next PFI initiative. According to a recent report on company directors' pay, even a figure of £100,000 is chickenfeed compared to the current level of expectation for top executives. This shows that among the top 100 companies in the 'Financial Times' Stock Exchange index, the fat cats of popular renown currently earn, on average, a basic salary of £600,000 a year (20 times what a tube driver can get) with another £883,305 on top in the form of bonuses, share options, golden hellos, golden goodbyes and all the rest.

There is none of the 'trickledown' effect that Margaret Thatcher used to talk about. Instead it seems to be more of a 'trickle up' effect, whereby heaps of cash mysteriously work their way out of workers' 'no longer viable' pension funds, for example, straight up the bosses' trouser legs and into their bulging wallets.

Much the same has happened with housing. Since the late 1980s there has effectively been no new council housing built in the UK, and latest figures show that in the past 12 months only 10 percent of the houses built in England could be classified as 'affordable'.

In a neat reversal of the usual principles of supply and demand, you can be fairly certain that the other 90 percent will be completely unaffordable to all but the top earners. And meantime the cost of the old housing stock jets off through the roof. Recent estimates by housing analysts give a total income of around £57,000 as what is now needed to get on the first rung of the housing ladder in London, where average house prices have shot up to more than £200,000. In other words, a London tube driver would need to be living with somebody on a similar wage before they could even think about buying a property in the capital. And in most other parts of the country it's much the same story. In this situation, the increasing chorus of demands for a decent living wage coming from workers in a variety of sectors is not--as some media pundits seem to think--the mischievous ranting of a few wacky hardliners.

One of the key factors underlying the latest confrontation in the fire service is that an increasingly large gap has opened between the earnings of those classified by government statisticians as manual and non-manual workers. Since 1977, the last time the firefighters were involved in a national strike and when Britain's bosses were a little less brazen, the earnings of the top 25 percent of male non-manual workers (currently £696.60 a week, or £36,171 a year) have increased by getting on for 25 percent more than the equivalent upper quartile figure for male manual workers (now £437.20 a week or £22,734 a year).

These figures are important because the pay formula which was agreed at the end of the firefighters' dispute in 1977 linked the earnings of firefighters, in their fifth year of service, to the upper quartile of male manual workers' earnings. At the time this put firefighters in the same league as other relatively well paid manual workers such as miners, print workers, dockers and car workers and meant that--at least for a few years--ordinary firefighters did not need to claim benefits to make ends meet or take on a second job.

The value of the firefighters' formula has been eroded in subsequent years partly because groups like the miners, print workers and dockers took such a hammering during the intervening period, partly because of the increasing disparity at the top end of the earnings scale and partly because their job has become increasingly complex--dealing with all manner of toxic substances, chemical spillages and road accidents as well as putting out blazes and carrying out community fire safety training. For all this, they earn the princely sum of £21,531 a year after five years service (with nothing on top for overtime, shift pay or regular nightwork and effectively nothing extra for any more years of service). This is probably about a quarter of the amount the 'Guardian's compassionate columnist Polly Toynbee gets a year for her tremendously important task of rubbishing the FBU case in a national newspaper.

Precisely because of the increasing sophistication of the firefighters' job, they are nowadays officially classified by the Office for National Statistics under the general heading of 'Associate Professional & Technical Occupations' alongside people like lab technicians, paramedics, the police, train drivers, air traffic controllers and, funnily enough, journalists. But this is not reflected in firefighters' pay, which is actually as bad now relative to other groups as it was pre-1977. Given that the upper quartile figure for non-manual workers has now gone up to more than £36,000, it makes the FBU claim for £30k, if anything, look rather modest.

It is the depth of the grievance, not the trickery of full time officials, which explains the whopping vote for strike action in the FBU. And, although the particulars may vary on the London Underground or in the universities, there is no doubt that pay is right back at the top of the agenda. At the recent lobby organised by bus workers in London, hecklers shouted out things like 'Talk is cheap' and 'Make it official'. Among them were bus engineers employed by Stagecoach, the company owned by Brian Souter.

Since privatisation wealth has trickled its way up to Souter and his sister, Ann Gloag, to the extent that they are currently estimated to be worth in the region of £1.3 billion.