After VE day, a new battle raged

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After VE day, when the war was over, a different kind of battle had to be fought. It involved not bullets and battalions but solidarity and strikes. Cailean Ghallagher draws comparisons with the present pandemic crisis, and the need to organise against hypocritical politicians and bosses who praise on one hand and take with the other.

The war brought about a revolution in the way that many workers were recognised and respected.

Women were celebrated for their work in essential services as air-raid wardens, fire officers, tram drivers, and nurses. Workers in male-dominated sectors like dockers and distribution were told to take pride in their work.

These jobs were recognised as essential, but at first they were paid well below average wages.

Essential workers in female-dominated work agitated for better pay. Sixteen thousand women at the Rolls-Royce plant producing vital parts near Glasgow held a strike in October 1943, winning equal pay.

And dockers and apprentice engineers on the Clyde won a guaranteed minimum wage and an end to casual labour.

They had support from their relations on the frontiers of the war – one army newspaper ran an article explaining why ‘The Right to Strike is one of the freedoms we fight for.’

But once the war was over, bosses and government tried to take away what had been won.

Within 20 days of VE day they slash our earnings’

After the war, protecting and increasing wages became a vital battle.

Wages depreciated, precarious conditions returned, and the workers who had been recognised for their service during a crisis were once again treated as second class hands.

Dockers found themselves earning considerably lower rates of pay working on the same ship and the same cargo. Women engineers were rewarded with salaries worth 60% of male counterparts’.

One docker told a journalist weeks after the war ended: ‘As soon as we beat the Germans, within 20 days of VE day, they end the West Front agreement [guaranteeing wages and conditions] without warning and slash our earnings’.

Plenty of praise but never a pay rise

Then as now, politicians and bosses applaud essential workers in call centres, council services, retail and distribution, social care and healthcare, then they slashed their conditions with the same hands.

Care workers are risking their health while being driven further into financial precarity, and pay rises previously promised by government and care providers are being delayed indefinitely.

Last week brought predictions of swinging cuts affecting local authority staff. This week casual teaching staff at Glasgow University were told that many of them would be laid off. Those whose skills we are lauding are simultaneously being told they are dispensable. They will have to fight for a decreasing number of jobs with depreciating pay. Thousands of workers have been asked to sign precarious contracts, thousands more have been laid off. In the next few weeks the numbers will rise exponentially.

Winning the peace that workers deserved

One of the posters that got the Attlee government into power in 1945 said ‘And now – win the peace’.

Before the war, most people had no health insurance. The fragile and fragmented health system emerged from the war as the National Health Service. The seeds of this NHS came not from the ashes of war but from the resources carefully pooled in working class communities.

This pandemic could catalyse change in the broken social care system, and in the mutual aid societies to support the vulnerable, and in the struggle of social care workers to win equal pay in Glasgow there are elements of a better care service for Scotland that is free from corporate control.

But not everyone won from the peace. The post-war Labour government, for all its success in building up a strong NHS, were not willing to prioritise the wages of vital workers.

In fact, when dockers in Glasgow and other cities took strike action to maintain their pay, Attlee’s government sent troops into the ports to break the strikes.

It took many years of hard work, organising in unions and building collective strength, to win the wages that reflected the courage and determination of these workers. Many of these fights continue today – especially the fight for fair wages for women.

Together we can win now for after the crisis

During the crisis, workers have shared messages of respect for each other. Companies and politicians have responded with gushing praise. But workers are right to be cautious of praise alone. The benevolent words of bosses has never brought promising rewards.

For the first time in seven years, wages are falling. Financial speculators expect high unemployment and an economic downturn.

We mustn’t let them take away our dignity.

That’s why workers are demanding pay appropriate to their work and the risks they are taking daily during the crisis.

This starts with a collective voice and a plan to bargain for pay in every essential workplace and sector. The essential value of work will not bring about a pay rise. Organising can.

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