Yesterday’s Budget was yet another line in a long list of failures by this government to protect the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people during the pandemic. This is a critical moment, and what’s needed now, more than ever, is a united and emboldened trade union movement.
Public sector workers—including PCS members, which my union represents—have made an immense contribution during the pandemic, but they have been hit with a deeply insulting pay freeze. They’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, delivering the essential services the public relies on. This dedication to public service has been carried out against the backdrop of a public sector decimated by austerity.
PCS members have played a pivotal role over the past twelve months in delivering the job retention scheme, administering over three million Universal Credit claims, keeping our ports and airports Covid secure, and much more. These are the same government workers whose pay has fallen by 20 percent in real terms over the last decade.
To illustrate the point, some DWP staff are so poorly paid that they claim the same benefits they administer. In HMRC, staff have processed government support payments to the tune of billions, and yet one in five are barely paid above the minimum wage. And privatised government workers, who have been on the frontline keeping government offices open and safe, have done so on poverty wages, sometimes forced to rely on pitifully low levels of statutory sick pay.
To reward these workers and millions more with further cuts to their pay is vindictive and unjust. There is no economic case for cutting public sector pay, and it’s clear the Tories’ supposed financial prudence is nothing more than cover to treat working class people with contempt. That’s why trade unions, as we have done before, must come together and take the fight to the government.
This is what happened in 2011, when we were in a similar situation to the one we are in now. The Tory-led coalition was using austerity to penalise workers and attack their pensions. In response, PCS took industrial action alongside three other unions. Four months later, 29 unions and two million public sector workers had joined the fight in an incredible show of strength.
This is the message we need to send loud and clear to the government: that we’re prepared to work together, campaign together, and, if necessary, take action together. There’s too much at stake for us not to; if they can get away with it now, they can get away with it next year and the year after. Crucial to building this coalition will be growing the union movement by getting more people to join a union and become more active in that union. Unity is strength, and never has there been such an important time for workers’ voices to be heard.
In speaking up for our members, we shouldn’t limit our ambitions. The pandemic has had a profound and irreversible effect on people’s lives, and the labour movement must now seize the moment to set out a bold and radical vision for a post-Covid Britain.
Most strikingly, the pandemic has drawn out and exacerbated the staggering levels of inequality in this country. While those at the very top have amassed obscene amounts of wealth, millions of people have struggled to house, clothe and feed themselves. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research revealed that the number of households in destitution—a word more akin to Victorian-era poverty—have doubled in the past year.
The amount by which elites have increased their fortunes is astounding. In this country alone, the wealth of UK billionaires has risen by £40 billion. Juxtapose this eye-watering amount of wealth with the images of people queuing in the pouring rain outside a Newcastle foodbank on Christmas Eve. It’s absolutely grotesque, and the labour movement should be at the forefront of fighting it with everything we’ve got.
That requires progressives robustly challenging the assertion that what’s required now is another round of public spending cuts, and the dangerous narrative that the country needs to ‘tighten its belt’. Unions fought hard to dispel this in the years of austerity, so let’s get ahead of the curve now and coalesce around a radical position that calls for much greater public sector investment, progressive taxes, and an end to inequality.
The economic burden of the pandemic shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of ordinary people: that’s why there has never been a greater time for a strong and resilient trade union movement. If we can unite to defeat the government on pay, there’s no stopping us from going further and fighting to secure the type of society our members deserve.