Union leaders like me don’t want to strike, but UK workers are being given no choice

The summer of discontent on our railways is now very much a reality, and at the point of escalating into other sectors, as workers take a stand to protect their living standards. Our union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, is currently balloting members for possible strike action at a dozen rail companies in England as well as Network Rail. They hold many varied and vital roles in stations, in management and maintenance across the board as well as railway controllers.

Meanwhile our sister unions, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ (RMT) and Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef), are gearing up for further walkouts. As are other unions in the private and public sectors.

This is a mere snapshot of the industrial action likely to take place as we approach the autumn and winter months with the Conservative government all at sea, without the faintest notion of how to chart another course.

Boris Johnson, Grant Shapps and the rest are squarely to blame for the growing unrest we are seeing as they have chosen to protect profit rather than working people.

It’s simple: many of our members, and workers more broadly, have not had a pay rise since the pandemic, even though millions of transport, health, and service workers were hailed as heroes during those dark days. Now in the eyes of ministers they don’t deserve a fair pay rise, despite the Tories’ cost-of-living crisis which has seen inflation rocket. And some, like many of our members on the railways, are also facing job losses as the government insists on cuts.

Workers will fight for their jobs and conditions, with strike action if necessary. They should not be expected to pick up the tab for an economic emergency they did not create. Those in government have the tools available to protect workers and control spiralling inflation; not using them is a political choice, nothing more.

The problem is Tory ministers are caught in their myopic neoliberal outlook, afraid of intervention and content to rely on the tender mercies of the free market. Let me give them some advice: look farther afield. Across the EU policies to help workers and the wider economy are very much on the political agenda. And according to the bosses’ paper, the Financial Times, even the leaders of the rich G7 club discussed price caps to tackle rising energy prices – something that frankly would have been unthinkable a few months ago.

Ministers must not be fooled into relying on an economic orthodoxy that will only accelerate and entrench recession. Raising interest rates would further reduce demand in our economy without helping those whose wages are falling in real terms and who are already cutting back their spending. This is a lose/lose measure that will simply push millions more people into poverty.

Instead of triggering a recession, we need a bold, interventionist state that acts squarely in the national interest: increasing the minimum wage and benefits payments by at least the rate of inflation, and encouraging wage settlements that do the same; and finally, introducing price controls on certain goods.

Legal limits on the cost of some critical items, such as those that already apply to domestic energy, would limit the impact of inflation for households. And that is badly needed right now. At the same time, rising wages would encourage more spending, sustaining growth. Everyone struggling to make ends meet would benefit from this; all that is needed is the political will to make it happen.

These policies cost money, but they could be easily funded with higher taxes on the huge private profits we have seen across our economy since the pandemic. According to the Office for National Statistics corporate profits across Britain have increased to almost £140bn in the first quarter of this year, up from £125bn at the last quarter of 2021. The largest companies’ profits were up 34% according to research by the Institute for Public Policy Research and Common Wealth.

Make no mistake, a dynamic chancellor and prime minister could launch these much-needed changes starting today. Instead, they are frozen by their ideological adherence to the free market: doing nothing as prices soar out of control for millions. They need to make way for politicians who will stand for the interests of ordinary people.

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