There was a time when strikes were as much part of the British way of life as warm beer and bad food. That changed in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher’s union laws and a recession that made potential strikers fear for their jobs. Under Labour (which left the new laws largely intact) strikes on a big scale remained a thing of the past. But now it looks as though that’s all about to change. Are we in for a summer and autumn of discontent?
It is in the public sector that the new militancy is beginning to gain momentum. Unions representing teachers, university lecturers and civil servants have balloted their members to win support for strikes over Government plans to change public sector pensions. These groups are planning a day of co-ordinated strikes on 30 June. The likelihood is that other public sector unions will ballot their members over the summer with a view to further and bigger strikes in the autumn.
Changes to pension arrangements are the main, but not the only, source of the unions’ grievances. The Government has decided that the existing pension deal for most public sector workers is not sustainable financially and is unfair in relation to workers in the private sector.
When it came into office, the Coalition asked Lord Hutton, a work and pensions secretary in the last Labour Government, to hold an inquiry into the future of pensions for Britain’s six million public sector workers and to make recommendations for reform. This followed huge changes in private sector pensions over the last decade or more, changes that have created very large discrepancies in the pension prospects of workers in the two categories.
In the private sector, many employers have closed down their final-salary pension schemes – that’s to say, schemes which guarantee a pension related to an employee’s final salary. Instead, employees are offered schemes which amass a pot for the employee to invest on retirement, but whose value in terms of the actual pension paid has no guarantee and depends wholly on how well or not the pot has been invested. Typically, the resulting pension from such schemes comes out at far less than the old final salary pension. Many private sector employees are offered no company scheme at all and have to make their own pension arrangements. Only 35% of private sector employees are in company pension schemes, compared with 85% in the public sector.
Lord Hutton recommended that while public sector employees should go on getting a guaranteed pension, that pension should no longer be related to an employee’s final salary but to his or her career average salary – a lower figure. He also said that public sector workers should contribute more than they do now to such schemes and that the retirement age in the public sector should rise from 60 to 66 by 2020.
At the moment the Government and the public sector unions are still negotiating about the proposals but the Government has indicated it is broadly in support of them. Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister in charge of the talks, said: 'Public sector pensions will remain among the very best, providing a guaranteed pension level for all employees. Today very few private sector employers still offer guaranteed pension levels.'
But that’s not how the public sector unions see it. They argue that there has always been an implicit deal in which public sector workers are paid less than people in the private sector but in return have more secure pensions. They argue that the Government is simply trying to save money on its pension commitments in order to deal with its own financial difficulties and the need to reduce the Government deficit.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, whose members voted by 61% in favour of strike action this week, said: 'This result shows that public servants, who provide vital services from the cradle to the grave, will not stand back while everything they have ever worked for is taken from them. The Government admits that money cut from pensions will go straight to the Treasury to help pay off the deficit in what is nothing more than a tax on working in the public sector.'
The Government argues that it is irresponsible of the unions to strike while negotiations between it and them are still in place. But few commentators are optimistic that an agreement will be reached and much bigger public sector unions, such as Unite, Unison and the GMB, are expected to ballot their own members over the summer with a view to striking in the autumn.
For many public sector workers and their unions, the pension issue is the most acute but not the only one where they see themselves under attack from the Government. Inflation is rising at 4.5% a year but their pay has not risen in line with it and they face a two-year pay freeze from next April.
Furthermore, the Government is cutting public sector jobs: 24,000 went in the first three months of this year and there are now 143,000 fewer jobs in the public sector than when the Government came into office. So what has started as a confrontation between the Government and the unions over public sector pensions may well turn in the autumn into a much bigger battle over the future of the public sector and its workers.
With this prospect of looming confrontation and of much more strike action in the public sector, some are suggesting that the Government needs to tighten up the law on strikes. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who has his own battles with the RMT rail union (which has organised a series of strikes on the London Underground), argues that the law on strike balloting needs tightening so that strikes cannot be called when the turnout is low. Among those unions that are striking on 30 June, the turnout in the ballots that authorised the strikes was only around 35%.
At the moment the Government seems reluctant to change the law in order to require a higher minimum turnout. It appears not to want to exacerbate an already difficult situation, although Mr Maude said this week that legislation 'had not been ruled out'. The Government seems more likely to want to change the law in a way that would ensure that minimum service guarantees are provided when strikes do actually take place, so reducing the disruption caused to the public.
The prospect of Britain once again becoming strike-prone has caused some commentators to despair. All strikes do, they say, is cause unnecessary hardship all round: strikers lose their pay, the public suffers inconvenience and the economy is damaged. Surely, they argue, there must be a better way to solve such disputes.
No doubt there is but it is not always possible to find it. As a result, people who feel under attack become angry and militant as we are seeing on the streets of Athens. Britain, fortunately, may be in a very different predicament from Greece, but are we heading towards similar levels of confrontation between Government and its workers?
What’s your view?
- Do you think public sector workers are justified in striking over their pensions or do you think the government’s proposed changes are right and fair?
- Do you think that in its policies on pay and job cuts, as well as on pensions, the government is being unduly confrontational with the public sector or that it is only doing what is necessary?
- Do you think the law does or does not need tightening to make it more difficult to call strikes?
- Do you support or not the idea that a higher turnout should be required in order for strike ballots to lead to strikes?
- Do you think we are heading into an era of renewed trade union militancy? And, if you do, do you think this is a good or a bad thing?
Let us know your views.