After years of inadequate pay rises, there are clear signs that workers' frustration is coming to a head.
Whatever official figures might say, workers know that the money in their pay packets is falling further behind the cost of living.
Seven thousand signal workers and station staff employed by Network Rail have voted for strikes over pay and in defence of their final salary pension scheme. As Socialist Review went to press London Underground workers were also voting on strikes over pay and hours. The RMT is planning coordinated action on both services. Even the moderate TSSA rail union is balloting members for industrial action short of strikes on pay and for strikes in defence of pensions.
At the same time, the firefighters' dispute has exploded back into life. The FBU's national conference in May voted to ballot for action over the employers' refusal to honour their promise of a 3.5 percent pay rise in return for increased productivity and other concessions. Firefighters' bitterness was further fuelled by the suspension of 34 Salford firefighters for refusing to use a new incident response unit. This has led to a wave of unofficial 999-calls-only action across the country. There is serious rank and file pressure for national strike action.
Unions representing one and a half million local authority workers in England and Wales have rejected an insulting three-year offer 'with more strings than the philharmonic', according to leading Unison official Heather Wakefield. TGWU union national secretary Peter Allinson complained, 'Our members deserve better than what amounts to a pay cut.' Strikes are now threatened over the summer.
Over 2,000 nursery nurses in Scotland remain on all-out strike over their regrading claim to take them out of poverty pay. Unison and the TGWU, which represent hundreds of thousands of health workers, have voted to reject the government's much-vaunted 'Agenda for Change' package which threatens pay cuts for tens of thousands.
At the time of writing, the civil servants' PCS union in the Department of Work and Pensions has suspended strikes. With widespread anger over government attempts to impose linkage of already low pay to performance leading to unofficial walkouts across the country last month, this dispute is far from over.
Twenty five London colleges struck over London weighting on 13 May and university teachers have won significant gains on pay following national strike action. Even forensic scientists were due to strike on 2 June over pay.
The employers have successfully held back earnings in recent years, thanks to wage restraint by New Labour in the public sector and the threat of unemployment in manufacturing. Chancellor Gordon Brown has boasted of increased spending on public services while intervening in a series of disputes to try and ensure that none of that money goes into the pockets of the workers who are expected to deliver better services. There has been a pattern of derisory pay offers in recent months tied to productivity increases and attacks on conditions, particularly pension rights.
Union leaders' reluctance to rock the boat has allowed New Labour to get away with this so far, but Brown's hard line is starting to backfire. Even the most pro-Blair union leaders are being forced to show they are not New Labour's poodles. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis spoke of 'the divisions in the Labour Party and in the country, particularly over our foolhardy involvement in Iraq and the use of privatisation in our public services'. The TUC has called a national demonstration over the growing pensions crisis on 19 June which is being seriously pushed in many unions.
While government attacks are pushing them to the left, the union leaders fear that encouraging militancy will strengthen forces challenging Labour from the left such as Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party. Which way they turn depends on activists building the resistance and the rank and file organisation that can really crank up the pressure.