How do you get the public on board with policies that no one really supports? Easy – divide and rule, a signature and all-too predictable strategy right out of the Tory government’s playbook.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak attempted to use this very strategy in his spending review in November, only for it to spectacularly backfire.
Poll after poll since the pandemic began, throughout 2020, found a public groundswell of support for ‘key workers’, many of whom work in the public sector. From refuse workers to council workers, health visitors to carers, teaching assistants to porters and many more in between, these workers put their life on the line to keep the country running when everything ground to a halt.
So when Sunak tried to justify his latest public sector pay freeze, the mental gymnastics he employed to make his case was so awkward, so convoluted, that it fell totally flat.
“Coronavirus has deepened the disparity between public and private sector wages,” he said in his spending review speech. “In such a difficult context for the private sector…I cannot justify a significant, across-the-board pay increase for all public sector workers.”
Doubling down on the divide and rule strategy, Sunak then said NHS workers would be given a pay rise, but their just as vital colleagues in social care, local government, and other parts of the public sector would not – unless you were at the very bottom of the pay ladder, in which case you may, at some unclear point in the future, be handed a pay rise of £250.
Try though he might to make his case for a public sector pay freeze, no one was buying it.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail tore to shreds the £250 sop to the lowest paid public sector workers.
“We’ve heard that the lowest paid will get an amount of money,” she said. “I’ve written down £250. I’m assuming that’s not a month, rather that’s over the entire year.
“This is a workforce that’s had its pay held down over a period of 10 years. That’s 10 years of a pay freeze – which is a pay cut, and then minimal increases of about 1 per cent. So, on average, workers in the public sector are £3,000 worse off than they were at the start of 2010. This isn’t compensation for those lowest paid workers.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey also noted that the basis of Sunak’s case for freezing public sector pay made absolutely no sense.
“By seeking to justify this so-called ‘pause’ in pay rises – a real-terms pay cut – on the equally divisive basis of a disparity in public and private sector wage increases, he ignores the fact that freezing public sector pay simply suppresses the spending power of all workers, right across the economy,” he said.
Meanwhile, public sector workers rightfully reacted with anger over being publicly praised by the government on the one hand, and cruelly betrayed on the other.
“We’ve worked throughout this pandemic, Monday to Friday, handling bins and refuse sacks to then go home to our families,” Unite rep and refuse worker Simon Cotton told the Mirror.
“We’re not immune from the virus, it doesn’t avoid us because we’re key workers,” he added. “We’re emptying everyone’s bins, keeping the streets clean, and then going home to our loved ones, putting them at risk too.
“We’ve been on the front line and haven’t stopped. It just shows you how out of touch this Tory government is.”
Even for health workers who were assured they would receive a pay rise, uncertainties remain.
Despite Sunak specifically naming nurses as those who would be getting a pay rise, a big question mark hangs over many public health nurses such as health visitors and school and community nurses.
This is because the planning and commissioning for public health services for young children was transferred from the NHS to local authorities back in 2015. Now, many different employers oversee public health nurses – some are in the NHS, some are in local authorities, and still others are employed by not-for-profit or private enterprises such as Virgin Care.
“These public health nurses have been on the very frontline of the virus just like nurses in hospital and other settings and indeed all other public sector workers,” said Unite national officer Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe. “They’ve risked their lives to ensure our children our safe and healthy at this time of crisis and we urge the government to ensure that they are included in any forthcoming pay rise, no matter who they are employed by.”
Cartmail went on to emphasise how those public sector workers now being betrayed by the government have given so much of themselves at a time of national emergency – to turn our backs on them now would be to turn our backs on the glue holding the nation together.
“This mainly female workforce already juggle work commitments, childcare responsibilities and care for elderly relatives, yet kept vital services running throughout the pandemic, at times due to government failures in PPE provision, risking their own health in the service of others,” she said.
“It is also a blow to local economies and high streets where public sector workers spend a large proportion of their wages.
“The prime minister’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is in tatters as a result of the chancellor’s divisive pay announcement which does nothing to restore the ‘lost’ pay in real terms from a decade of austerity.”
By Hajera Blagg
This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list