UK public sector strike: the government is picking a fight with the unions


This Thursday, one and a half million workers including firefighters, teachers, civil servants and local government staff will exercise their democratic right to strike.

On the surface the public sector dispute is over pay and pensions but the strike is being billed as a wider protest against cuts to public services and the detriment caused to its users.

In a separate dispute over ‘pay for performance,’ workers at Transport for London have timed their strike action to coincide with that of members of Unite, Unison, GMB, PCS, the National Union of Teachers and the Fire Brigades Union.

The well-rehearsed arguments about the need for pay restraint to save jobs are already in full swing.

They never really stopped following the last big public sector strike in 2011.

Rather than the unions picking a fight with the government, it is the government picking a fight with the unions.

Working people, the unemployed and the disabled are all feeling the gulf between prices rising on the one hand and wage and benefit cuts on the other.

Analysis from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) shows the average public sector worker is £2,245 (US$3840) worse off in real terms since the government took office and the lowest paid are being hit with real terms cuts of almost 20 per cent.

If that wasn’t enough, workers see tax breaks for the rich and those same people taking part in tax evasion and avoidance scams which if properly dealt with would flood the treasury coffers with much needed funds to pay public sector workers properly.

Introducing an arbitrary one percent pay cap after a three year pay freeze in 2010 is not an offer but a challenge to workers to see how much they will take before they act.

Instead of negotiating or giving the union leadership something they could take back to their members to try to overt the strike, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude this week revealed plans to toughen up already restrictive balloting rules.

This would either be restricting the length of time a strike ballot is legitimate or introducing a threshold where over 50 per cent of those balloted would have to say ‘yes’ for a ballot to be legal.

It is worth remembering postal balloting was brought in by Margaret Thatcher under the guise of protecting individual union members from being ‘pressured’ by union bosses into taking strike action by a simple show of hands in the workplace.

Now it is used to stop legitimate strike action and an important exercise of workplace democracy as balloting is expensive, rigid and designed to make low turnouts more likely.

The government does not want to re-introduce workplace ballots as they are fully aware as is every union rep that turnout would be increased, legitimising strike action in the eyes of the public.


Anti-union message

The aggressive anti-union message is trumpeted no louder than by the likes of former industrial correspondent turned Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens.

On last week’s on BBC’s Question Time programme, he extolled the virtues of the right to strike only to, in the next breath, say public sector workers are never justified in withdrawing their labour because it hurts the public.

More extraordinary was his claim that strike action in the private sector in the 1980s by the miners and others ultimately led to the closing of the industries they were trying to protect.

There can be no greater fallacy than the one peddled that says workers taking industrial action destroy industry.

Workers in capitalist Britain do not own their industries. They do not take the decisions to privatise public assets or offshore jobs abroad in order to make themselves redundant.

Health workers do not hold up banners outside hospitals saying ‘thank you’ to private contractors for getting a foothold in the NHS.

Industrial action is always a last resort for workers and is something that is never entered into lightly.

As an industrial reporter, I have interviewed hundreds of workers in many different disputes.

I have met politically motivated activists, first-time strikers who feel they have no choice, those who fear if they do not act they will slip into a bout of depression like many of their under pressure colleagues and I have seen blacklisted workers who feel they have nothing left to lose but to support every militant action that gets justice for their cause.

The best way for the government to avoid strike action on Thursday and into the future is to address the underlying causes of dissatisfaction, not create further animosity with more draconian anti-labour laws.