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THERE is, as ever, no shortage of issues facing Unison delegates as we gather in Brighton. The cost-of-living crisis, though, bears down on our members with particular urgency.
It’s not just that many of our members are modestly paid and will be feeling the financial heat now, and worrying about where the heat for their homes will come from this winter.
It’s also that that the Tories won’t waste this opportunity to continue their endless war on public provision. They will claim that pay cuts are needed to tackle inflation and insist that services are something that the country can’t afford. It’s all nonsense though.
What we are calling a cost-of-living crisis is a consequence of putting private greed ahead of public need.
It isn’t happening everywhere though — for all Boris Johnson’s (correct at time of writing) government wants to blame the war in Ukraine, or Vladimir Putin or the jubilee, or the weather.
In this country bills are going through the roof. In France EDF has been told by the French government that prices aren’t to go up by more than 4 per cent.
It’s a political decision to leave key utilities and institutions in the hands of those who put making profits and avoiding tax ahead of providing heat and light.
It’s important that we remember that — and say it loudly in the months ahead as we defend living standards for the people the country really needs. Unison members aren’t the cause of inflation — they are the victims of inflation.
And letting the government make us poorer won’t put a pound in anyone else’s pocket. Classroom assistants don’t own gas networks, hospital domestics don’t own oil companies and social workers aren’t the people raking in profits from electricity supply.
We should not allow greed at the top to drive down standards for the rest of us.
The TUC says we’re in a 17-year pay squeeze, the longest in living memory, with public-sector pay growth falling 4.9 per cent from March 2021 to 2022, the worst on record.
The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that pay won’t return to above 2008 levels until 2025.
The Scottish government announced two weeks ago that it wants to see 3 per cent savings year on year from public bodies — and keep the pay bill flat at this year’s level for the next three years.
It is both social and economic foolishness to try and tackle a cost-of-living crisis by undermining public services. All that will happen will be the creation of more unmet need, standards will decline and the quality of everyone’s life will go down.
Neither will inflation be tackled by allowing effective pay cuts in public services. Wages are an effective form of economic stimulus. They provide growth that has a tangible effect in local communities.
The below-inflation wage rises and pay freezes which have been the norm over the last decade have contributed to slow growth, worsening inequality and a recruitment and retention crisis in key sectors of public services.
And it’s not as if the money isn’t there — just take a look at the Sunday Times Rich List. Some 250 people in the UK are worth between them £710.723 billion, that’s an 8 per cent rise on last year. We should take no lessons on “restraint” from this lot or their friends in the Cabinet.
The money to fund services exists — what is lacking is the political will to levy the taxes and collect them. This week Unison is outlining the need to have a more effective tax system that limits the opportunity of the rich to avoid their social responsibility.
Our conference is making appeals to governments across the UK. We are calling on them to do their jobs and fund public services properly. So that we can do ours and deliver those services.
This is being done, we are all painfully aware, more in hope than expectation. Governments aren’t going to act unless they are made to.
If services and wages are to be defended it is going to have to be done by a mass movement — and Unison members will have to put themselves at the heart of that movement. A starting point here would be ensuring a massive turnout on Saturday’s TUC demonstration.
This week we will be setting out policies and plans for action to inform, train and mobilise our members — in conjunction with the TUC and its Scottish, Welsh and Irish equivalents. And to do so on the expectation of government and employer hostility.
Unison members do the jobs that hold society together and make civilised life possible. The country needs Unison members — and Unison members need the union to help them organise to fight for their families and their communities. If we come out of this week focused, determined and ready to do that, our time in Brighton will have been well spent.
Lillian Macer is convener of Unison Scotland.
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