THIS week will see the largest industrial action taken by trade unions for some time.
Teachers, lecturers and civil servants will join forces on Thursday to demonstrate their strong opposition to Government aspirations to bring in changes to public sector pensions that could see these and other workers paying much more in their own pension contributions, while working longer and receiving a smaller pension in retirement.
As the deadline for this strike has approached the rhetoric from Government has increased on a daily basis.
Business Secretary Vince Cable unwisely chose to threaten the annual GMB union conference that if unions took action there could be consideration of tightening up already restrictive strike laws.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, in an apparent hardening of the Government’s line, outlined his position in a speech to IPPR, drawing an irritated response from the normally moderate and conciliatory TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber.
The mainstream media followed, launching personal attacks on the leaders of some of the UK’s trade unions, with dire warnings of the dreadful impact of strikes on the public, seeking to influence the public’s opinion of public sector workers.
If the Government is relying on the public turning against public sector workers as a result of this industrial action, they would be wise to reconsider.
There is little evidence that the public are behind the Government’s proposals.
Just over one third of the electorate think public sector pensions should be reformed in the way being proposed, while 43% think the changes are wrong.
This is not surprising, public service workers are highly regarded by the general public and people know that the pay freezes and job losses that have been introduced are a deeply unfair consequence of the actions of highly-paid bankers from the private sector. Nor is there, in fact, strong opposition to industrial action. Despite Cable’s insipid threats at the GMB conference there is value attached to the right to strike.
Taking lawful industrial action is a fundamental human right that workers in many undemocratic regimes are demonstrating for and being praised for so-doing by this Government.
While seeing strong civil demonstrations and industrial action as a key to hope and progress in states like Egypt, Libya and Syria the government here describes industrial action effectively as an abuse of power, not to be tolerated and leading to ‘consequences’.
The public are aware that workers are not ‘strike happy’, that industrial action is a last resort, they are aware of this because there is no division between workers and the public, they are essentially the same group.
An emerging problem for this government, however, is the growing disconnect between them and an increasingly disillusioned electorate who see nothing but a failing regime, failing on the economy and making the poorest pay.
Kevin Rowan, Regional Secretary – Northern TUC