Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely respect the right of workers to withdraw their labour in protest at their conditions – it’s an essential manifestation of freedom of speech. However, in a modern economy, with generous provisions for workers and bulletproof protections in the form of employment legislation, is the mass withdrawal of labour, as threatened by Dave Prentis, leader of the UK’s largest public sector, Unison, sensible?
The argument put forward by the union is that the Government shouldn’t push ahead with plans to increase the retirement age for public sector workers, to move away from final salary pensions or to force them to make greater payments into their pensions because it is unfair; this argument denies the basic economic realities – the Government has no choice.
Historically, it was the case that public sector professionals accepted that they would be paid less than those in the private sector, but that in return they would have better conditions – more holiday allowance, earlier retirement age and greater stability. Workers in the private sector experienced less security, less holiday allowance and worse pension provisions, but earned greater salaries with which to make their own provisions for their financial future.
The differences between the two sectors have been eroded over a number of years, to the extent that some jobs in the public sector now have greater salaries than those of equivalent responsibility in the private sector, due to the need to attract the best talent into the public sector into less ‘glamourous’ roles.
At the same time, workers in the private sector have experienced significant downward pressure on salaries as a result of globalisation and the global recession, and so the balance that existed no longer prevails – the difference between the working conditions across the whole of the economy are now much more similar than they once were.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to understand how the leadership of the Unison can justify the inevitable equalisation of pension provisions for public sector workers when people across the whole of the economy are suffering as we fight our way out of the economic mess left by years of Labour mismanagement.
It is hard to imagine that people in the retail sector who have seen their hours reduced and their salaries squeezed by increased living costs whilst having to work harder and faster than ever before will have much sympathy for striking workers that prevent them getting to work by disrupting train and Tube services or deny their children the education that they need by closing schools – especially when those public sector workers are often better paid.
However, I also sympathise with the overwhelming majority of that union’s membership who DID NOT vote for strike action; can a 20% vote for strike action really be considered sufficiently representative to justify a strike? It defies all logic.
It certainly cannot give Dave Prentis and Unison’s leadership a mandate to call strikes “on a scale not seen since the General Strike of 1926” – such language is clearly politically motivated, and driven by ideology and a desire to bring down a Tory-led government, rather than what is in the best interests of the workers they are meant to represent.
Can workers really afford to give up wages at a time of economic hardship, especially when only a minority of them support strike action? Will they be willing to do so, when so few of them could even be bothered to vote in the first place?
Even Ed Balls, writing today, seems to be encouraging the unions not to strike, conscious that our delicate economic recovery simply cannot sustain a wave of rolling industrial action – it would be irresponsible.
It’s likely the the British public will not be sympathetic to strikers whose working conditions are at least as good as – and in many cases better than – their own.
Bearing this in mind, surely going on strike is the last thing that the unions should be doing now?
Weakening the economy can hardly be in the interests of the people that the unions purport to protect and serve – they should be thinking strategically, rather than focus on the little picture.
I have a feeling that George Osborne will welcome a fight with the unions – it will give the Government a reason to introduce legislation (quite rightly in my opinion) that will force unions to secure at least 50% of the votes of their membership to legitimately hold strikes.
More importantly, it will accelerate the reform of the public sector in a way that aligns well with the Government’s overall plan to reduce the size of the public sector and stimulate growth in the private sector.
I’m torn; I do not want to see our economic recovery disrupted by unnecessary strike action, but at the same time I think that a programme of mass strikes will accelerate the demise of the unions and help to eradicate the militancy that continues to undermine the effectiveness of British trade unions – and ultimately strengthen our economy.
Striking is never effective; in this instance, it is also not right. But it may have positive political outcomes for the Government.