OUR public-sector unions Unison, GMB and Unite have been pressing for a “fair pay rise” for council staff.
Their arguments are irrefutable. Not only on the grounds of pure justice: public-sector wages have been in lockdown for years as part of the Tory and Lib Dems’ failing strategy to reduce public expenditure. Last year a measly 2 per cent was won, but the outstanding case for a substantial rise remains unanswered.
The case for a pay rise rests also on the grounds of common sense. The unions point out that the net cost of a pay rise for council and care staff, many of whom are very low-paid, is lower than the headline cost because it would increase the Treasury tax take, raise national-insurance contribution, reduce spending on tax credits and employment subsidies and boost local economies.
The true cost, the unions argued, is under £800 million.
Employers in both private and public sectors know full well that most of their costs — power, raw materials etc — are fixed. The biggest variable cost is wages, and thus whenever employers are under pressure — from market forces or government policies — to cut costs it is what our US cousins call “compensation” that suffers.
The term “compensation” suggests that the employee is compensated for the time they spend at the beck and call of the employer. A much better way of looking at pay is to think of it as that part of the value of our labour that the boss doesn’t take as profit.
Except for the special case of privatised public services where we, the taxpayers, subsidise the profits of the contractors, public services are not there to make a profit but to maintain the stability and good order of our collective lives and deliver the services that make modern living approximate to a civilised existence.
Pay levels in the bigger market for labour power — in the rest of the economy — are a measure of how far public-sector pay has fallen behind, so it is easy to see how unions alight on the idea that a pay rise would be “fair.”
This is especially true in an economy where women earn much less than men. Class is the organising factor, where men from professional and managerial backgrounds earn 21 per cent more than working-class women in the same professions while black and ethnic-minority professionals generally earn less than white colleagues in similar roles.
A useful article in the Morning Star’s Full Marx series pointed out that the biggest disparities in pay are with the hierarchy of pay grades between upper managerial and so-called “routine” occupations where this is regarded as “normal,” justified on the need to provide “incentives” — the implication being that care jobs bring their own rewards.
This factor is especially important in local government where the full social and human value of the lowest-paid jobs — as revealed in the pandemic — is not reflected in pay levels.
Our local-government unions and the workers they represent deserve every support in the campaign, not only for themselves but because raising the average level of pay in this massive sector raises the level for everyone else.
In our futures there does lie the essential prerequisite for a solution to this seemingly never-ending struggle. This is when the working class receives the full value of its collective labour.
“Instead of the conservative motto: A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” argued Karl Marx in Wage Price and Profit, trade unions “ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: Abolition of the wages system!”
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