From International Socialism, No.54, January 1973, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The freeze is biting – on wages. Prices continue to rise of course and government policies will ensure that they continue to rise. The sharp increase in meat prices (approved by the government) will be followed, at the end of the month, by across the board food price increases due to implementation of phase one of the Common Market’s ‘Common Agricultural Policy’. Increases in import prices due to the declining value of the floating pound (around 10 per cent down since the float began) are bound to work themselves through to retail prices. Such increases are specifically allowed for in the freeze law. The marked rise in interest rates will reinforce the trend – and of course land and house prices and rents are ‘unfrozen’. Value-added tax will add its quota of increases – significant ones if the rate is the expected 10 per cent – and so, from the same date (1 April) will the next round of ‘Fair Rent’ increases.
On the pretty safe assumption that the freeze is extended to the end of April (the maximum under the present legislation) the employers and their government seem set fair to achieve the major object of the freeze – a cut in living standards and a rise in profits. True, this is not the sole object of the operation – the government undoubtedly wants, for other reasons, to moderate the rate of inflation. But even more important to it is the recovery of some of the ground it lost on the wages front in 1972. And the whole strategy depends both on the co-operation of the trade union leadership and on their ability to control their membership.
Perhaps it is a little premature to talk of knighthoods and peerages just yet but it is crystal clear that the great majority of the TUC leadership, including yesterday’s ‘lefts’, is willing and anxious to play the government’s game. Last spring, when the government was on the ropes after the hammering it had been given by the miners and the railwaymen, the TUC rushed in to proffer the hand of friendship and get down to talks about a deal. Very unwillingly, the General Council was forced to suspend the talks when the NIRC tried to strong-arm militants into passive acceptance of the Industrial Relations Act by imprisoning the five dockers. It resumed then, with indecent haste, when the five had scarcely shaken the dust of Pentonville from off their heels. The massive unofficial movement to free the Five was seen by Feather, Jones and Co, not as a great victory for the working class, but as an unfortunate interruption in the serious business of negotiating their role and status as junior partners of the employers and the state. It is no exaggeration to say that the TUC chiefs saved the Tory government in 1972. The talks, both open and secret, continue. For Heath needs the TUC in 1973 even more than he needed it last year. Without trade union co-operation his government cannot survive the storms ahead. Phase two of the freeze – it will be given a more attractive title – must begin by April at the latest and the plans must be settled in the next few weeks.
The difficulty is the awkward fact of the growing unwillingness of large sections of workers to accept real wage cuts. Probably very few workers can quote the figures that show that members of that group of 385,000 people who receive £5,000 a year or more have gained on average a total of £37,560 a head extra, since June 1970, due to capital gains and changes in the tax system. All the same the glaring contrast between the rewards of the rich and the rewards of the rest of us is more and more obvious to more and more workers. The nightmare that haunts the trade union chiefs, no less than the members of the cabinet, is the prospect of a re-run of the 1969-70 ‘revolt of the lower paid’. Wilson’s wage-freeze plus devaluation of the pound was pretty successful at first but it built up a tremendous backlog of resentment. It was decisively breached by the local government manual workers, a group with very little previous record of militancy, and a host of others swarmed through the breach to produce the ‘wages explosion’ of 1970. Hence, the Industrial Relations Act, the policy of ‘confrontation’, the intensification of the class struggle that is so unpleasant and dangerous to the trade union bureaucracy whose cardinal principle is the necessity and inevitability of class-collaboration. This time it could be the gas workers or the health service manual workers. Much as Feather and the rest would like a deal which would give them an assured role as administrators of government wages policies, they cannot, they dare not, sell their members too cheaply for fear of losing control. There is another difficulty. Sectional interests in differentials make it very difficult for even right-wing leaderships to surrender any serious degree of their autonomy. Legal control of wages, statutory enforcement of the decision of a pay board and legal penalties for defiance offer a way out and one that the government would be only too happy to oblige with. But this solution, though it is the most probable outcome, is a very mixed blessing to the trade union leadership. Certainly, it provides an excellent excuse for inactivity and right-wing policies. At the same time though, it reduces the importance of the unions and therefore of the leaderships. More important still, what happens when some aggrieved group of workers defies the law – and wins? The problem of enforcement is a really explosive issue that is bound to lead to the very sharp confrontations which the TUC is above all concerned to avoid. They have no easy way out of this dilemma.
The job of the left is very clear. Each and every wages struggle in the weeks and months ahead is a direct fight against the freeze and against the government. Whether lower paid or higher paid workers are involved, the breaking of the freeze is a vital necessity for the whole working class. An ounce of action is worth a ton of resolutions. Nevertheless the resolutions are still necessary. Hand in hand with industrial action wherever it is feasible, there needs to be an intensified pressure inside the branches and districts to halt the slide to the right of the national leaderships, for official action against the freeze, for an end to providing the Tory thieves with a ‘respectable’ cover by talks and consultations about ‘incomes policy’.
Last updated on 12.1.2008