Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Stuart Ash

The payback


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Did the signal workers’ strike mark the beginning of a new wave of disputes? Stuart Ash asks what’s happening to pay

Shortly after the signal workers’ victory came the news that management at Rover had conceded an inflation topping two year deal for 30,000 car workers. Since then, Jaguar workers have rejected a pay offer agreed by management and union officials. Managements are having to over more than they would have done a few months ago in order to get a settlement.

The signal workers’ deal was clearly a blow for the government’s paybill freeze for the public sector. Altogether the signal workers got at least 8 percent plus the 37 hour week, and did not concede that Sunday should be treated as an ordinary weekday.

All the signs point to the Tories losing their way in their attempt to freeze paybills in the public sector. The employers’ body, the CBI, is equally unable to guarantee its ‘zero’ pay norm in the sector. But their loss of control is not inevitable, it requires a fight – and union leaders are, at best, ambivalent about the way forward.

In the case of the workers at Rover the recovery is tangible. Both Rover and Land Rover vehicles have been selling well and the company has taken on several hundred extra workers – sending a clear message to the workforce, who now have higher expectation. The same is true at Jaguar.

Elsewhere, particularly in the public sector, the recovery is not shared. All government paybill costs were meant to stay at 1993 running cost levels until 1997 in order to bring the PSBR under control.

When Clarke announced that the paybill freeze would last for three years in his Budget speech in November 1993, he meant a very tough policy. However all the back-to-basics sex scandals and sleaze revelations that emerged in the early days of the pay policy meant that Major had to let through the Review Body pay awards to nurses, doctors and teachers of 2.9 and 3 percent last April. Since then almost all public sector groups have received increases very close to the rate of inflation, which has become an informal norm. Most settlements are for increases between 2.5 and 3 percent. Union leaders, however, could be pushing for more. Despite the obvious anger at grass roots level union leaders for 1.5 million local government workers have accepted a deal worth only 2.4 percent, with leaders of the health section of Unison set to do the same.

The fact that signal workers breached the public sector pay policy should have given others more confidence. And the fact that MPs themselves broke it with increases of 4.7 percent makes people angry. Confidence and anger can be a volatile mix.

There could be a much bigger bust up over public sector pay in 1995 because increases according to Clarke can only be funded from running costs still set at 1993 levels, at a time when inflation is expected to be higher.

Another area of dispute that may come more to the fore in 1995 is over the length of the working week. Just five years ago, in 1989, the engineering unions launched a campaign for the 35 hour week (they were then working 39 hours basic). After a aeries of strikes and threats of action a large slice of the industry moved to 37 hours in 1990–91. When the recession clamped down on industry in 1991, the unions halted the campaign, saying they would return once the economy recovered. Those firms that didn’t move below 39 hours in 1990–91 could be the first targets. For example, in the car industry, while Rover, Jaguar and Honda work a basic 37-hour week, Vauxhall, Ford and Nissan are still on 39 hours.

Funnily enough the German engineering workers’ union recently told the employers in Germany that next year it wants a 6 percent pay rise and that it flatly rejected any attempt to delay the introduction of a 35-hour week. That’s the sort of moderate demand we could all support.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 November 2017