The public sector strikes back

On a day that saw around two million workers from 29 trade unions take strike action in defence of their pensions, thousands gathered at rallies around the UK on Wednesday 30 November.

strike demo 6In London, a 30,000-strong march and rally heard Labour’s London Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, who argued: ‘There is still time for the government to adopt a more constructive position and enter into genuine talks. That would be the responsible course of action and I urge them to think again and act in the interests of public servants and Londoners.’

Livingstone claimed that for all the talk of ‘gilt-edged pensions’ for public sector workers, it is MPs who get the best pension deal among public servants having voted to award themselves a guaranteed two-thirds final salary pension after just 20 years service that ensures at least £40,000 a year. Two days later a health worker calling BBC’s Radio 5 Live pointed out that after 42 years service she will receive a pension of £7,500 – and that’s before the government’s reforms.

strike demo 2TUC general secretary Brendan Barber accused the government of scrapping a tax on bankers in favour of a tax on nurses, teachers and lollipop ladies, while PCS general secretary Mark Serowtka vowed to strike again and again until the government agree to proper negotiations – a pledge greeted by whoops and cheers from the crowd along London’s Embankment.

The lack of decent pensions in the private sector, he said, was no good reason to cut pensions for the public sector workers. It was a result of Thatcher’s anti-union policies which stripped private sector workers of their rights and protection.

In other cities, 20,000 gathered in Manchester, 10,000 in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Sheffield city centre (see pic below). John Stevenson, from the GMB in Sheffield, directed some predictable ire at local MP Nick Clegg: ‘Nick Clegg accuses everyone involved with the trade union movement of telling porkies. But remember what Mr Clegg said to the students? He is the expert in telling lies – not us.”

strike demo sheff 2

The numbers striking and turnouts at rallies belied Tory efforts to portray the day as simultaneously damaging and a ‘damp squib’. And despite failing (to the annoyance of many) to back the strikes, Ed Miliband still managed some to express some genuine anger on behalf of ‘the dinner lady, the cleaner, the nurse who earns less in a week than George Osborne spends on his skiing holiday’.


  1. Jonathan
    10 January 2012

    Michael, I accept much of what you say in defence of public sector pensions. I too am a public sector employee and went on strike on 30 November. However, as far as I am aware, they are funded out of taxation, not investments, wherein lies the problem of their long term sustainability.

    Also, ask youself this: how many careworkers or cleaners are now employed directly by local authorities? The answer is: less and less. The majority of public sector workers are part of the ‘squeezed middle’ and are not on low pay.

    I agree with you that trade unions must, by their nature, ‘start where people are’ (meaning, their member, I suppose). However, their members – overwhelmingly now in the public sector – constitute only 20% of the workforce; the other 80% remain on the whole (at best) ambivalent about pension rights in the public sector.

    That is why socialist organisations need to take a wider view and develop a realistic policy/ campaign which unites as many people as possible in defence of fair and decent pensions for all.

    Did we learn nothing from the 1980s? Broadening the resistance is the only hope for retaining good pensions in the public sector.

  2. Michael
    3 January 2012

    As a person who works within local government I’m not going to agree completely with what Jonathan has stated. Not all public sector workers are well paid. Try telling that to some-one who works as a part-time cleaner or care worker in a care home or in a school. If the figures that were published in the Independent at the time the one day strike took place are accurate, then the average pay in the public sector is not that significantly better than that in the private sector – otherwise there would not be the need for the so called market supplements that the job evaluation process that occurred when single status was introduced about 10 years ago were supposed to get rid of. Nor is there a great deal of difference if you compare what is paid by a private sector pension with that of a public sector pension – the big difference is that most public sector pensions are final salary schemes (again this is assuming the figures quoted in the Independent are ok). It’s all down to the use of which average you use. The major area where the public sector jobs are “better” than most private sector jobs is when it comes to terms and conditions.

    Yes, it would be nice to broaden peoples “sectional interests”, but we have to start where people are. I think it’s worthwhile to point out that a reason why the Tories are out to change public sector pensions is to make then unaffordable for most people who work in the public sector. Therefore, most people will opt out and so make the pension funds more unsustainable. If you look at most public sector schemes whilst there is an employer contribution, payments also come from employees salaries. Funds are then invested in various areas such as the stock market. If your pension contributions are to rise and your pay has been frozen for yet another year (ie. you have had a pay cut in real terms) then in order to pay for your rent or mortgage, etc, you will think about cutting back on “non-essentials” which for some can include dropping out of the pension scheme. Most public-sector pension schemes are relatively responsive to members’ control, as a proportion of the pension trustees are appointed from the trade unions, which for all there faults do have a measure of member control. You don’t have that with private pensions. With many private schemes up to 25% of your contributions are taken as administration fees, ie. profit for the pension providers.

  3. Jonathan
    23 December 2011

    Yes, this is ok but it doesn’t address the fundamental question as to why the public is skeptical about the strike.

    Not all public sector workers are on poor pay (in fact many of them are well renumerated) and the unions only seem to see things in terms of protecting existing conditions, not restoring fairness to the pensions system as a whole.

    It is also valid to question public sector pension schemes which are paid out of general taxation rather than members’ contributions and fund investments.

    I tend to think that the role of the ILP is to challenge the Left to confront difficult issues – so that it can be more radical and effective – rather than to go along with the crowd. Perhaps inevitably the unions will pursue narrow sectional interests, but socialists should be broadening their horizons and calling for sweeping reforms to the whole pensions system.

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