Does Striking Make Sense? – In response to my friend Marcus.

Marcus is unashamedly Tory. I say unashamedly, he would say ‘Proud’. He is one of the new breed of Tories, socially as well as economically liberal. He believes in small government, equality and economic freedoms. He puts his money where is mouth is too – he is a Councillor in North London and, judging by the amount of work he does there, a good councillor at that. We work together at Comic Relief (so it turns out Tories can be nice people) and I count him as a friend. He is however, and I hope he will not mind me saying so, wrong when it comes to the public sector strikes scheduled for this summer. You can read his blogpost at

Marcus highlights the following reasons as to why and how the Unions are wrong side of this debate:

– The Government has no choice
– Public and Private Sector Pay differentials are not what they used to be, negating the need for enhanced pensions for teachers, nurses, doctors etc.
– Only 20% of the workforce actually voted ‘yes’ to strikes
– It weakens the economy, is a tactical move that dismisses the big picture and is playing into George Osborne’s hands

So let’s look at them one-by-one.

The Government has no choice

First, the Government nearly always has a choice, and this time is no different. It could cut elsewhere for a start. Trident perhaps? I would rather secure better teachers, doctors and nurses than ever more extreme ways of killing one another. Or they could choose to cut the deficit over 10 years rather than 5. Maybe, they look at alternative taxation? The Robin Hood Tax is just such a place to start. I am not specifically endorsing any of these, but to say that their is no choice but to significantly worsen public sector pensions is simply not true.

Public and Private Sector Pensions are not what they used to be

At face value Marcus is right on this. In some areas public and private sector pay have converged significantly, and in some cases public sector pay has actually leapt ahead. What he is not telling you is that this is mostly for the worst paid in society, for example cleaners, where Unions have worked hard to ensure that those on the lowest wages in the public sector can still enjoy a living wage. For most public sector staff however it is still true that, should they choose to jump to the private sector, their pay will jump significantly at the same time. It is also worth remembering that it was not so long ago that many private sector companies also ran final salary pension schemes. It is precisely because they were often non-Unionised that this deferred salary (for that is what a pension is) could be removed from them. My big point on this though is simply – If we want equality between public and private sector reward, why does it always have to be at the sacrifice of good working conditions and reward? How about we try racing to the top for once rather than the bottom?

Only 20% of the workforce voted yes for strikes

Of all the the things anti-Unionists say, this has to be the most disingenuous. It is true that 20% of the workforce voted for strikes, but it is wrong to infer that 80% therefore do not support it. Some people feel more passionately about things than others, that is for sure, but Union members are aware at what is at stake and, if they feel passionately against it, they can and will vote against. More than this, why does anyone think it is fair we hold Unions to a higher level of democratic accountability than we do our government? Only about 22% (before you ask, if you include the LId-Dems it increases to a shade over 30%). of those eligible to vote in the general election in 2010 cast it for The Tories, does that make them illegitimate, or is it a case of 22% good, 20% bad?

Unions are thinking tactically, not strategically.

Marcus opens with a misunderstanding of Unions typical of so many of Thatcher’s Children by stating:

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.

The thing is, and this is what they don’t get, Union’s don’t purport to protect and serve anyone. ‘The Union’ is not some single top-down body with an all-powerful CEO. It is instead the democratic realisation of workers coming together to represent one another’s interests. Marcus may argue that choosing to fight over pensions is a tactical mistake, which is his view, but it is important to realise this is a decision taken, not by some Union baron, but via numerous elected bodies and via a ballot. Moreover, pensions are a real issue for workers – the suggested changes to the pension scheme will mean people retiring later, paying more for their pensions and receiving less in return. Surely enough to make anyone a little bit peeved? Doubly-so when you remember it was not them that caused the financial crisis in the first place.

Finally, Marcus makes an argument that these strikes are ideologically motivated, and playing into George Osborne’s hands. If they are ideological does that automatically make them wrong? I am ideologically for workers enjoying certain rights and privileges at work – one of these is that they are able to retire with dignity. It seems to me that any attempt to erode this is worthy of a fight. Is it playing into evil George’s hands? Perhaps, but what is the alternative? Capitulation is of course an option, but not one I would choose. Besides, George shouldn’t be too bullish, Tories have underestimated the union movement before and it has been to their peril.


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