National strike: why the FBU must put a figure on its pay claim / Roger Blackwell

IN FIVE WEEKS’ time, the FBU will begin balloting its entire membership for national strike action in response to the employers’ derisory offer of a 2% increase in pay.

In a video released yesterday, general secretary Matt Wrack confirmed that the executive council (EC) had decided against tabling a clearly-defined pay claim. Instead, it would appear that the EC is sticking to its general and longstanding demand that the employers offer a “substantial” rise.

We think this is a strategic mistake.

Any union heading into a national strike needs to be able to rally its members behind a clear and unambiguous demand that is supported by evidence and understood by everyone.

The word “substantial” will mean different things to different people. To FBU members with an already-severely-limited disposable income, “substantial” might mean a rise of £100 a month. To others, it might mean £500.

Having flexibility to negotiate around a particular demand is one thing. But the demand cannot be so vague and ill-defined at the outset that members are at wide variance with each other over what it actually means. That is no basis on which to launch a national strike campaign. In fact, it could see the whole campaign unravel quickly.

The general secretary made the point in the video that inflation is continuing to rise, meaning that any definitive claim could soon be out of date. It’s a point worth considering. However, a pay demand that, as well as incorporating some or all of the wages lost in real terms over the past decade or more, takes into account current inflation forecasts – the Bank of England is predicting a rise to 13% by the end of this year – is likely to find itself inflation-proofed (at least until the next pay rise is due).

In any case, there is no guarantee that even if a “substantial” rise were offered by the employers, that rise would not itself be erased by inflation at some point. After all, the employers are no more qualified than the union leadership to know precisely what future inflation rates will be.

In yesterday’s video, the general secretary argued that the question of what figure represented an appropriate offer was a matter for the employers. “The ball is in their court. The obligation is on them…” he said. We profoundly disagree. It is also a matter for us as a union. We need to determine the shape of our own pay claims and settlements.

The union needs to put a figure on its claim. If we don’t, we will allow the employers to set the agenda in negotiations and cause confusion amongst our own members.

Of course, this is the type of question that would best be resolved at a recall of the union’s annual conference. That’s why it is vital that that recall takes place urgently.

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