Over recent years our leaders have been predicting the anger that would end the pay freeze. This anger seems now like a mirage, forever shimmering on the horizon and always beyond our reach. Always this wasn't the year to fight (but soon!) Then it was. Then it wasn't again. Now? Now we shall see.
Clearly events have not unfolded as expected. It's broadly true that, for decades (generations even) every episode of pay restraint has been defeated by an upsurge in industrial action, often driven by unofficial rank and file pressure in the first instance.
But now, after the longest and deepest fall in real wages in living memory, this still hasn't happened (yet). Why?
I think there are a number of factors which mark the current period out from earlier waves of industrial conflict provoked by pay restraint.
Fears for job security are obviously real for many of our members but - historically and currently - these fears are not of themselves an insurmountable obstacle to fighting for higher pay.
Certainly the political context is less favourable than (say) a generation ago. There is no global alternative to capitalism. There is no visible Parliamentary alternative to austerity. There is a generation of workers with no memory of such things or much knowledge of trade unionism.
A generation of anti-union legislation has also trained trade union officialdom to play a key role in policing workplace militancy - and this has had a cumulative deadening effect upon the vigour and combativity of the movement, as well as the confidence of the rank and file.
This context doesn't mean it is impossible to fight as was shown by the public sector pensions dispute or, very differently, by the electricians. The modest recent increase in trade union membership may even indicate a turning of the tide.
However, rebuilding confidence and combativity cannot be done by sitting and waiting for the tide to turn so we can surf on the crest of a wave of rank and file militancy. In these times, leadership cannot consist of passively reflecting back the mood of the membership in the hope that it will improve.
That's why, whatever the outcome of tomorrow's UNISON National Joint Council (NJC) Committee and of the pay consultation exercise which will be reported to it, the approach of the North West Regional Local Government Committee (to make a positive recommendation to reject a further real terms pay cut) was correct, and the approach of the (narrow) majority of the NJC Committee itself was wrong.
We won't revive our movement until we start leading a fight for the interests of our class like we mean it.
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