Why Labour people should back “The Great Strike”

The Great Strike is just two weeks away. From headteachers to lollipop ladies, care assistants to university lecturers, hundreds of thousands of workers are set to take part in the biggest co-ordinated industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.

The Labour leadership is highly unlikely to back the strike: the best that can be hoped for is an “understanding” of why so many workers feel the need to lose a day’s pay, and for Ed Miliband to refrain from condemning the strike action. But there are elements in senior circles who – quite frankly – are hostile to unions full stop. At worst, figures at the top could join the chorus of condemnation.

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But – whatever the positioning of our leaders – Labour activists have a major role in November 30th: in the build-up, on the day itself, and in the aftermath. We are, after all, the party of Labour: we were founded to give the labour movement a political voice. We need to be manning the picket lines and making the case for public sector workers however we can.

It’s not going to be easy. The Government and their allies (i.e. virtually the entire British media) are going to throw everything at the strikers. Expect a vitriolic, dirty propaganda campaign.

So we have to be prepared. I’ve compiled a list of common arguments and some suggested responses. The Tories have been so successful at transforming a crisis of market failure into a crisis of public spending because they have stuck to a script: they’ve repeated the same arguments whenever a microphone has been pushed in their direction. It has Labour supporters tearing their hair out – but it’s been terrifyingly effective.

Here we go:

Public sector workers are vested interests.

Public sector workers are pillars of our community. They collect your bins, they look after you when you are sick, they educate your children. They are librarians, nurses and dinner ladies. Without them, society would not function.

Public sector workers are overpaid.

Does £22,850 sound like being overpaid to you? That’s the average pay of a civil servant, and it’s about £2,000 less than the private sector average. Nearly a quarter of British workers being paid less than £7 an hour can be found in the public sector.

Public sector pay has been frozen, even as inflation soars to over 5%. That means public sector workers are – in real terms – experiencing major pay cuts.

Public sector workers are lazy.

Public sector workers do the equivalent of 120 million hours of unpaid overtime a year: that’s the equivalent of employing an extra 60,000 people. One in four public sector workers put in unpaid overtime worth almost £9 billion a year – compared to one in six in the private sector.

Public sector pensions are gold-plated.

If you take out the top mandarins, the average pension of a civil servant is about £4,000 a year; more than 100,000 earn less than £2,000 a year. In the public sector as a whole, most public sector workers get a pension of less than £5,000.

If you’re looking for gold-plated pensions, the private sector is a good place to start. One TUC survey of 346 directors from 102 of the UK’s top companies found that their average pension was worth £201,700: about 25 times higher than the average worker.

Public sector pensions are unaffordable.

Not true. As a proportion of GDP, public sector pensions are projected to peak at 2% in 2027-28 and will then decline. In an agreement with the last Labour Government, workers pick up the bill if people end up living longer than expected and pension costs overshoot projections. Public sector pensions will become more affordable.

In any case, the money raised by increasing workers’ pension contributions won’t go into pension schemes. It is a tax on public sector workers to help pay off the deficit.

Why should the rest of us pay for the pensions of public sector workers?

We could equally ask – why should the rest of us pay the wages of public sector workers? It’s because we all depend on them for our society to function. Pensions are just deferred wages, after all – they ensure that those who dedicate their lives to serving the public don’t spend their retirement in abject poverty.

Why should private sector workers with no pensions cough up for public sector workers?

Private sector pensions are one of the great scandals of our age. Only 40% of private sector workers are now in an employer-sponsored pension scheme. It’s even worse with low-paid workers: only 20% of those earning between £100 and £200 a week are in an employer-backed scheme. But the argument should not be to drag down the pensions of public sector workers: it should be to drag up the pensions of private sector workers. Why punish public sector workers for the bad practices of private sector employers? If we do, we end up in a race to the bottom.

We have a deficit caused by public spending.

Not true. The Tories backed Labour’s spending plans pound for pound until the end of 2008. The main reasons we have a deficit is that tax revenues collapsed in the aftermath of a financial crisis caused by under-regulated banks; and welfare spending went up because so many people lost their jobs.

Public sector workers didn’t cause the deficit, so they shouldn’t be made to pay it off. There are a whole range of other solutions: like cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance (which costs the Treasury up to £70 billion a year); a Robin Hood Tax on financial transaction; and promoting economic growth, which will increase tax revenues, boost consumer spending and cut welfare spending.

Unions are resisting a democratically elected government.

The Conservatives won only 36% of the popular vote in 2010, despite having everything lined up in their favour – a hugely unpopular Labour Government and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. They did not put many of their more extreme policies – like cuts to front-line services and the de facto privatisation of the NHS – to the British electorate. The only reason they managed to form a Government is because the Liberal Democrats did major U-turns on promises that had won them votes: like tuition fees, VAT and cuts.

This Government has no mandate for its extreme programme, and workers have the right to resist them.

Union barons are sending their workers out on strike.

Firstly, there is no such thing as a “union baron”. Barons are unelected; union leaders are elected by the members. Secondly, all workers have been balloted to go on strike. It is they – not their leaders – who have decided to take action.

How do unions have a democratic right to go on strike when – in many cases – the majority of eligible voters did not vote to strike because of a lack of turnout?

If we apply this logic to Parliament, the vast majority of MPs have no mandate – and, after all, the Conservatives are transforming society having won just 36% of the vote on a 65% turnout (meaning less than a quarter of eligible voters opted for them). In virtually all strike ballots, a large majority have voted for strike action – demonstrating the strength of feeling out there. Many don’t get round to sending back their postal ballot – so the Government should allow balloting at workplaces to encourage turnout.

Pensions may be a tough deal, but is it enough to strike for when many of us are suffering from cuts?

We have some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in the Western world. Workers can only strike when they are in direct conflict with their employers. Pensions is one of the only issues that all public sector workers can strike over. It’s an important issue, but we shouldn’t see it as the only reason for the strike – even if it’s the official one given. Cuts affect us all – workers and service users; the welfare state is under attack; our public services – not least the NHS – face privatisation. All of these issues will be chanted about on demonstrations and picket lines on November 30th.

Public sector workers aren’t just striking for themselves: they’re striking for all of us.

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