Cost of living crisis: Sheffield trade union leader urges fightback including workers' pay action

A Sheffield union leader says that the cost of living crisis has got so bad that nobody knows how many foodbanks there are now.

By Julia Armstrong
Friday, 22nd April 2022, 11:13 am

Martin Mayer is the secretary of Sheffield Trades Council, the umbrella group for the city’s trade union movement, which has been involved in protests and campaigns to fight back against poverty.

The trades council was the first to work alongside unions to employ a worker to try to unionise within the ‘gig economy’ of people in insecure jobs. That initiative came out of its long-running campaign, Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise. Other trades councils have now followed suit.

Martin said: “We’ve linked up with (anti-austerity campaign) the People’s Assembly on various national protests which involved events here in Sheffield each time. We’ve held numerous rallies and more recently held street stalls.

The S6 Foodbank in Sheffield - Martin Mayer of the city's trades council says that it's no longer clear how many foodbanks there are in Sheffield because new ones are being set up to cope with soaring demand

“We’re very well aware that nobody knows the number of foodbanks in Sheffield, because new ones have had to be set up. They’re being overstretched and demand is going through the roof.

“Although the Government claim they’re doing everything it can to help workers, they’ve done almost nothing – 5p off tax duty at the petrol pump doesn’t help the poorest families who couldn’t afford to run a car, just as bus fares go up.

“Richer people benefit more from that. They’re buying more fuel and travelling further.

‘What we’re experiencing is not inevitable’

Martin Mayer of Sheffield Trades Council, speaking at a Stop and Scrap universal credit rally at the Town Hall in 2019

“On energy, there is no attempt to control prices. Let’s just remember it costs no more to extract and import fuel than it did a year ago. This is speculation with international markets which has driven up the price and created massive profits for those with the ability to buy it up and sell it.

“The Labour Party is calling for a windfall tax but there’s no sign of that from the Government. That’s still not enough.

“In France, where their energy is still under public ownership, there’s a four per cent increase in fuel bills and they’re complaining about that. We’re just supposed to accept a 50 per cent price rise as inevitable.

“We’re trying to get those comparisons out to people. We need people to realise that what we’re experiencing is not inevitable.”

Protesters at a Just Eat courier protest at the Town Hall in Sheffield - the city's trades council has backed the strikes and is also helping to unionise workers in the 'gig economy'

Martin said that the Government has direct control over making millions of people poorer – including 5.7 million UK public sector workers, pensioners and people on benefits.

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“Only health workers have seen a three per cent increase, which is still nowhere near the rate of inflation. All the others have seen a 1.75 per cent pay rise, yet another real-terms wage cut for people,” he said.

“They ended the triple lock for state pensioners, otherwise they would have had to pay them an increase of eight per cent. They’re only getting one of 3.1 per cent, again well below inflation.

“It’s the same for people on Universal Credit and other benefits. Their 3.1 per cent increase was the biggest in some years, at a time of rising prices, and it’s a real cut yet again.”

‘The wealthy don’t have a cost of living crisis’

Martin said that green initiatives being proposed by the trades council alongside city climate campaigners could make a big difference.

“We need a massive investment in insulating people’s homes. That would have cut people’s fuel bills and of course would have contributed to efforts to get carbon emissions to net zero, which is so important,” he said.

“There was not a whisper of that from Rishi Sunak in that Budget.”

He said that instead the Government wants more drilling for North Sea oil and a return to fracking.

Martin called for investment in green energy such as wind power, which he said has the lowest unit cost of any type of energy generation.

“We’re very determined to get the message out to ordinary workers,” he said. “This is a position we have been put in as a result of Government policy. The gap between rich and poor is higher than anywhere else in Europe. It increased dramatically during Covid and is increasing rapidly now.

“The wealthy don’t have a cost of living crisis – the tax cuts they’ve seen are exactly in the wrong direction.”

Martin said that, while the rich get tax cuts, ordinary workers will see a 1.5 per cent hike in their National Insurance contributions.

He said trade unions need to give a lead, adding: “The unions don’t always act with one voice. One union doing a lot is Unite – they are absolutely encouraging members to stand up for a substantial pay rise.

“They’ve backed workers fighting for a 10 per cent pay increase and more with proper strike pay. And of course they have been standing up on the buses, winning big increases.”

‘They can stand up to the bosses and make a real difference’

He said that the GMB has been backing refuse workers to fight successfully for better pay around the country.

"In road haulage, workers have won increases of up to 20 per cent. That’s been forced across a mainly non-unionised sector as well. When workers have been strong and able to fight back and unions have been prepared to back them, they have been winning substantial increases.”

He said that people who argue the country can’t afford it should remember that Britain is still the sixth richest country in the world – “it just doesn’t feel like it if you’re at the bottom”.

Jesse Palmer has just taken over as the Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise worker, funded by the trades council and the BFAWU food industry union plus donations from other unions and individuals.

Martin said: “We’ve been engaging with low-paid workers across the fast food sector and finding an extremely good response, particularly where the labour market is quite tight.

“The only increase that people working for companies like KFC and McDonald’s are seeing is when the national minimum wage goes up this month. We would like to get these workers to form a union together – they can stand up to the bosses and make a real difference to pay and conditions.”

Martin said the work goes on under the radar until union membership reaches a density where it can make a difference as employers are quick to put pressure on staff not to join.

To contact the trades council or Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise, go to sheffieldtuc.co.uk/contact.