The government is waiting for the public and strikers to tire of the disruption caused. To wean us off our support, pressure is piling on. According to ministers and the press, the strikers are “greedy shirkers” making a “conscious decision to inflict harm” and holding the government “to ransom”. Zahawi even invoked Russia by saying nurses should accept real terms pay cuts to “send a message to Putin”.
But if this government wants to emulate the success of the Iron Lady in defeating the unions in 1984/5 then they have miscalculated. The miners’ fight back over the coal industry helped Margaret Thatcher portray their unions as tyrannical villains. As Dr John Jewell of Cardiff University states, Thatcher aimed to:
“…persuade the public that trades unionism was an inherently pernicious entity. The whole weight of the Conservative Party’s political machine was thrown behind a cause… regularly depicted by the government as a simple battle between good and evil.”
But the context is very different in 21st-century Britain and the government is losing control of the new rise of constructive resentment.
In it together
What are the government’s arguments against providing living wages?
One is that this would create an inflationary spiral. But it suits the government to fudge the point that rising wage demands are a response to, not the cause of, inflation. Inflation is usually caused by macroeconomic changes such as crises in global shipping and corporate profiteering, not by greedy workers. Lack of competition, according to the economist, Robert Reich, allows large corporations to raise prices whilst raking in record profits. Demanding wage restraint to curb inflationary spirals that workers didn’t cause is both unfair and, arguably, futile. As Richard Partington notes, pay constraints have only a limited impact on inflation. They simply enable employers to use their profits to bid up prices elsewhere. To quote the respected US Cato Institute: “The aggregate inflationary impulse remains”.
Whatever one’s views on inflationary spirals, the government’s argument here effectively demands that public service workers use food banks to avoid inflation. This is unacceptable and a terrible optic.
The public know that the strikers are asking, not for pay rises but, to end continuing real terms pay cuts. Public sector earnings have fallen in real terms by between 4.3% (according to ONS) and 13% (The Guardian) since 2008. We are also aware that this relentless fall has occurred during twelve years of Conservative austerity, meaning that strikers already have protracted experience of working in stressful, underfunded, crumbling, short-staffed environments. They were using foodbanks before they began striking and frustration has been brewing for years.
Additionally, current inflation is necessitating belt-tightening for all but the super-rich and millions are being squeezed by a 40-year high in the cost of living. Inconvenience about being unable to get our usual train or hospital appointment vies with anxiety about frightening energy costs and 15.5% food price rises. These are predicaments we share with the strikers and we can sympathise whilst shivering and frantically economising together.
Pollsters Omnisis found that 84% of voters believe nurses should receive inflation-related pay rises and backed pay rises for teachers and rail workers. Support for rail workers remains high says Market Researchers Savanta.
Waste and greed
The government’s other defence is that living wages are unaffordable. But this excuse must be seen in the context of their own profligacy:
- Johnson’s government wasted £8.7bn on PPE and £37bn on the failed Test and Trace programme. His own frivolous projects (garden bridges, water canon, back-to-back glamorous holidays and extravagant wallpaper) only served to amplify the sense of grievance.
- Truss’s subsequent mad mini-budget blew a £30bn hole in government funds.
- During his chancellorship, Sunak allegedly wasted £11bn paying excessive interest on government debts.
- Government inaction means that the NHS is being forced to use taxpayers’ money for agency workers to fill staff shortages at vastly higher costs than the standard ones.
The strikers’ sense of grievance and public sympathy has intensified in response to the government’s shameless endorsement of greed.
- It doesn’t sit well with anyone that strikers are being told to accept pay cuts by the richest PM in UK history, whilst ministers like Hancock make big bucks from celebrity turns in the jungle and lucrative peerages are allocated to hoards of the undeserving, including the PPE opportunist, Baroness Mone.
- Additionally, big companies are making obscene profits. The average wage for CEOs of English water companies last year was nearly £1.7mn, accompanied by standard salary rises of 27%. In the second quarter of 2022, BP tripled its profits to £7bn and in the first part of 2022 E.ON profits were £3.047bn.
- By protecting UK non-doms, the government is also failing to recoup between £3.2bn (LSE) and £4.3bn (Tax Research UK) of annual tax revenue.
- Hunt’s removal of the cap on bankers’ bonuses augurs damaging short-term profiteering.
So, let’s set this profligacy against the cost of real terms wages. The IFS notes that the cost for public sector workers is not the exaggerated £28bn claimed by Steve Barclay. If the 3% rise the government already agreed, plus the claw back in tax and NI are factored in, the figure is closer to £18bn.
Yet the wastage above is in excess of £60bn. Even if you dispute this improvidence or blame some of it on the pandemic, the government has evidently still squandered sums far bigger than the amount needed to provide living wages for the public sector.
A fair tax for non-doms could, as Labour notes, contribute to living wages. Other available options are taxes on the excess profits made by the UK’s big company CEOs and relatively small further taxes on our 171 billionaires. Additionally, the UK has one of the lowest debts in the G7. In a time of crisis, the government safely could, and morally should, be borrowing to protect our essential services.
Yet the government’s intransigent refusal to negotiate indicates that it has no intention of healing the rift between its own excesses and the plight of ordinary working people. But, in this case, trying to engineer a patriotic Blitz mentality to make strikers feel obliged to accept pay cuts ‘for the good of the country’ won’t work. The mantra ‘we can’t afford it’ sticks in the throat – they can’t tell strikers to belt-tighten when they are spraying money around like uncorked champagne.
Support for striking nurses will be particularly difficult to shift. Even the Express headlined with ‘Give nurses a deal and stop this madness’. It really isn’t wise to pin the tag ‘greedy’ on nurses. A quarter of hospital trusts have organised food banks for their staff. Resorting to foodbanks is a stark reminder that the nurses strike arises from desperation, not greed.
Nurses were enduring low pay before the pandemic and ballooning inflation. But their pandemic heroism is also fresh in the public’s mind. They lived and died on the front line, working in bin bags whilst the government squandered huge sums on illegally procured, faulty PPE. Many nurses are still traumatized by the horrors they witnessed then. Yet they were rewarded with mere claps and a future working under continuing pressure, with reduced staffing, whilst dealing with a huge pandemic backlog, all on real terms pay cuts.
To quote one nurse reluctantly striking:
“Doing 80-hour weeks just to try and live, your bills constantly going up, and I’m still paying off my £70,000 nursing debt from my student finance. I was unfortunate enough [that] year I started my degree I had to pay for my nursing degree because the bursary had been scrapped by the government”.
Striking for you
Crucially, nurses are striking for us too. Nursing is a vocation to protect life and to interrupt this vocation by striking is a powerful measure of the frustration they are experiencing. Also, their job satisfaction depends on fully functioning teams, to quote another nurse:
“Patients aren’t getting their teeth brushed, they’re lying in their own waste because there aren’t enough of us, we can’t split ourselves in two, especially on the wards.”.
The team aspect of nursing makes it vulnerable to a spiral of decline where every nurse that leaves adds pressure to those left, reducing their own commitment. Without a living wage the prognosis is simple – low job satisfaction triggers an exodus that jeopardises the nation’s health. Reduced staffing means increased suffering and mortality. This isn’t a case of greed but of nurses being unable to fulfil their vocation properly.
The staffing squeeze may be part of a deliberate ploy to push the NHS into such decrepitude that ‘privatization’ looks justified. But, given the suffering caused to patients and staff, this slow strangulation is a ruthlessly immoral tactic that demolishes the government’s “compassionate” public face.
Since the demand for a living wage is common to all the strikers, the inclusion of nurses helps shift the dial on the public’s perception of the justifiability of the strikes in general. Union representatives are increasing public awareness of the gulf between the predicament of strikers and a government which flaunts and wastes money to an obscene degree. Where the mainstream media stays silent on this awkward disparity, social and alternative news media step in as a corrective.
Awareness is also growing that the spiral of decline in nursing applies to other strikers. Teachers, rail workers, ambulance drivers, even driving examiners, all struggle because, without a living wage that attracts an adequate team, their jobs can’t be done properly either. Their work becomes unmanageable, intolerably stressful, and job satisfaction vanishes. And so the exodus begins, a process accelerated by the government’s refusal to negotiate. Their ‘tough guy’ stance is shaking vital workers off the tree like loose leaves.
The government relies on its reputation as ‘the party of good business sense’. But their litany of excess and waste shows economic mismanagement on an industrial scale and callous disregard for our most important public services. Billions that could have contributed to a living wage to our teachers, train drivers, posties and nurses have instead been squandered.
Attacking strikers worked for Thatcher. But we are now living through a 21st-century cost-of-living crisis which unites us and in which bogus government excuses about ‘lacking the cash’ and ‘needing wage restraint’ are no longer convincing. We see these excuses for what they are – feeble attempts to sustain the financial interests of a few at our expense.
A government with true business sense and moral vision would recognise that living wages, job satisfaction, and the country’s economic health and well-being are inextricably linked; therefore attacking the workers who underpin our society is a dangerous act of national self-harm. Our strikers not only deserve a living wage but we deprive them of it at our peril.
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