'We should not be made to pay for the cost of living crisis'

Unite organiser Joe Rollin explains why everyone should take to the streets as cost of living soars

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Households across the UK are facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis that has left virtually no family unscathed.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that one in five people in Britain have reported cutting back on energy usage even ahead of a surge in gas and electricity prices in April. A strong majority – 66 per cent – say they their cost of living has increased over the last month, with energy bills being the main culprit fuelling cost rises.

At the supermarket till, the same story emerges – one recent study by consultants Kantar found that grocery prices over the four weeks to January 24 were up nearly four per cent compared to the same period last year.

And as food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe has recently highlighted, headline inflation figures obscure the fact that households already struggling the most financially are the very same ones who are shouldering the greatest burden in the cost of living crisis.

A Twitter thread by Monroe, which went viral last month with over 15m views, showed how the cheapest supermarket items have seen the steepest price rises. For example, the cheapest rice at her local supermarket last year cost 45p for 1kg. Now it costs £1 for 500g – a 344 per cent price increase.

She also highlighted how upmarket items such as premium ready meals haven’t increased in price at all over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, over the last year, supermarkets have relentlessly axed items from their value ranges altogether.

Monroe’s intervention – which has now prompted the ONS to revise how it calculates inflation – is only one of many voices who in recent months are clamouring to be heard over an unprecedented cost of living crisis that is only just beginning.

Those voices, including from Unite and other unions, will all be uniting as one at People’s Assembly demonstrations in more than a dozen cities on Saturday, February 12 – Unite is encouraging all its members and their families and friends to attend. The main demonstration will take place in Manchester from 1pm.

Unite organiser Joe Rollin explained why these demonstrations were so vital.

“Action in our communities and in the streets, with Unite and others pushing out the narrative that workers shouldn’t be made to pay for the cost of living crisis, is going to be really important in the coming weeks and months,” he told UniteLIVE.

“We at Unite are gearing up for a summer of discontent,” he added, highlighting that Unite has spearheaded unprecedented industrial action over the last six months.

“Most of our pay rise anniversaries are in April. We cannot allow the government to be able to change the narrative to say that it’s greedy trade unionists putting in big pay claims in April that’s causing inflation. We need to get that message to get out there – that 10 per cent pay claims are the norm and not something unusual.

“Many of the companies we’re in disputes with now have shareholders who are multi-millionaires. It’s time that they put their hands in their pockets for the workers who actually create these companies’ value. Unite is at the forefront of shaping that narrative to ensure workers feel confident and emboldened to get what they’re worth.”

Joe noted that the cost of living crisis – the worst in 30 years – has come at a time when workers have suffered stagnating wages for decades.

“Over the course of the pandemic, this has made workers – especially key workers like bus drivers, lorry drivers, health workers and others – rightfully angry after they’ve sacrificed so much to keep us all going at great risk to themselves,” he said.

Joe, who is working with members in industrial disputes such as Actavo scaffolders now on strike at British Steel in Scunthorpe, said he’s witnessed the devastating impact the cost of living crisis is having on members and his community.

“The affect has been huge,” he explained. “Our members are very worried about what the immediate future holds for them as this year develops. We’ve got the National Insurance rise coming soon too on top of the skyrocketing cost of living so people are understandably anxious.

“Wages in North England where I live in particular are absolutely shocking,” he added. “It’s become the norm for people to be on minimum wage now. The minimum wage was introduced to set a base standard – an absolute minimum floor – but actually now it’s become the norm for companies to pay the minimum wage, which isn’t enough to live on. That’s creating massive anxiety in families. You’ve only got to look at the food banks – we’ve got members who are actually in work who are forced to go to food banks. It’s obscene really.”

The People’s Assembly will be calling for a range of measures to address the cost of living crisis at Saturday’s demonstrations, including a cap on energy costs, an increase in state benefits such as Universal Credit, the restoration of the triple lock on pensions and a windfall tax on gas and oil companies, among other calls.

Joe said a variety of speakers will attend, including workers currently in industrial disputes who are members of Unite and other unions. “It’s all about building that coalition of unions that are ready to fight back,” he noted.

More than anything, the People’s Assembly demos have the power to unite people like never before.

“Our retired members are very worried about the triple lock, while many of our Community members who are not in work are suffering immensely from the cut in Universal Credit. And then of course there’s the ongoing call for fair wages from our industrial members. This demo links all of our sections in the union together.”

Joe encourages everyone who can to attend.

“These demos are just the start of building a movement around the cost of living crisis,” he said. “We know that demonstrations don’t change things overnight but it will be a great way to support workers from all sections of society in their struggle for fair pay and to support our retired and Community members — who aren’t able to bargain collectively like others do in workplaces — in the struggles they face as well.

“We’re all united in the fact that none of us should be made to pay for the cost of living crisis. It’s not of our making and we shouldn’t suffer because of it.”

You can find out more about the People’s Assembly demonstrations on February 12 and how you can take part at a demo near you here.

By Hajera Blagg

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