Giles Marshall 7.50am
For the first time in over twenty years, the school I teach in will be hit by industrial action today.
About half of its teachers, my colleagues, will be sacrificing a day’s pay to make their protest against the whittling away of their promised pension.
None of them are natural activists. All of them are dedicated professionals who will not have taken the decision to lose a day’s teaching lightly.
And, of course, as we all know, they are not alone. Across the full panoply of public services, strike action is taking place, often at considerable inconvenience to others. The strike is wrong and misconceived, but it is important to understand why now, of all times, it has generated such extraordinary support.
There will be no shortage of Conservatives happy to accept that the strike action is wrong. Their opinions will range from the slightly head-banging approach that tars all public servants as time wasters and scheisters in overly secure jobs for limited working hours who wouldn’t know a day’s real work if it came and blatted them across the face, to those who believe public servants have a genuine grievance but have chosen completely the wrong method at completely the wrong time. As a state school teacher who is working today, I fall – not surprisingly – into the latter group.
I do not waver in my belief that the strike action is not only altogether mistaken, but that it also severely harms the reputation and image of public servants. At a time when those in the private sector are suffering job insecurity, frozen or reduced incomes and all the hardships that come with a lengthy economic recession, the image of the state’s workers downing tools and parading through cities to demand that more of the private sector’s cash should be invested in our pensions is jarring indeed.
That we have jobs with a hefty level of security, and that we have pension pots which, no matter how reduced, still exist and to which we pay only a proportion of the actual contributions, are all factors which striking public sector workers have put too readily to the back of their minds.
At best, my colleagues are guilty of naivety. At worst, they are reminiscent of the most blinkered of the Greek protestors who felt that it was possible to maintain a hugely generous state payment system without regard to the state’s actual wealth.
A feature of the pension that teachers and others have ignored is that they contribute barely 10 per cent towards it. The contrast with the private sector – or parts of it at any rate – will be seen tomorrow at my school. While some of my colleagues are striking to improve their state funded pension arrangements, the builders constructing a new classroom block will be in at their usual early hour to carry on with the work of construction. In the construction industry today, you don’t lightly surrender the work that you have.
However, having established why the strike is erroneous, it is also important to know that the reasons behind it are not without serious foundation. Not for nothing has this action encouraged thousands of hitherto mild public sector workers out on strike.
The comparisons with the private sector – unhealthily mythologised in some parts of the Tory party – wear thin. It is the private sector, and notably its banking arm, that has got us into this mess in the first place.
While the hitherto contractually agreed pension arrangements of public sector workers have been ransacked by the government to help shore up its faltering economics, the rate of vast private sector bonuses and rewards continues unabated, even in those banks which might be seen as the cause of all the trouble. It isn’t easy for a public sector worker on a comparatively low income watching all of this to understand why their pension pot should be reduced but the inflated salaries and bonuses of bankers and corporate chiefs should continue unabated.
If the strike is wrong, but the concerns of public sector workers are not without foundation, what then has gone so awry in the body politic as to bring back a level of state disruption which we thought had disappeared in the 80s?
The issue seems to be, at least in part, one of serious lack of communication from the government, coupled with a lack of empathy for the public sector (most leading Conservative figures have made their way in the various manifestations of the private sector, whether it is party bureaucracies, family companies or self-built businesses).
The failure to communicate the real value of the public sector pension is a first base error; I suspect few of today’s strikers really appreciate this. The failure to hold out some sort of reform of the private sector financial industry is another. Public sector workers could more readily accept the mantra that “we’re all in it together” if there was a more serious effort on the part of government to show that that in fact is the case.
David Cameron and George Osborne will not be seriously hurt by today’s action – at least not politically, whatever alternative arrangements they may have had to make for their children’s schooling today. But if they want to head off a long, simmering dispute with their huge public sector, they need to avoid the temptation to succumb to the public sector bashing that exists in our party, and try and engage constructively with the large number of public employees who genuinely do undertake their jobs as a commitment to service and are looking for some sign that they are not simply deficit fodder.
The strike is wrong-headed certainly; but that doesn’t mean the fears of the public sector should be ignored.
Giles Marshall is head of politics at a London grammar school. Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall