Should the public sector strike over pensions?

30 November 2011

After a Cabinet minister proposed a 15 minute ‘token walkout’ for workers planning to strike on 30th November, we ask: is a strike the answer?

Yes: The strike is an attempt by the working classes to fight for autonomy in the workplace, argues Rees Arnott Davies

Pensions are not a luxury. They are what ensure that your grandparents do not live in a state of penury, and allow them a relative degree of comfort after a life of tiring and incessant work. This is even more the case in the public sector, where workers accept often substandard pay in return for the knowledge that their pension is secure, and will allow them to stop working at a reasonable age.

This is why the strike on November 30th is so important. Pensions are a share of the wages paid by an employer that gets deferred by placing it in a pension scheme to provide for old age. In deciding that they no longer want to pay their share of the scheme, employers and the government are effectively demanding that workers pay more, work longer, and get less when they retire. The government’s plan is to increase contributions by 50% or more, raise the retirement age to 68, and cut tens of thousands of pounds from the value of the scheme at the end. From teachers, to civil servants, to university and higher education lecturers, millions of workers are facing an unprecedented attack on their standard of living. In Cambridge, where 47% of the population work in the public sector this could push thousands of people under the poverty line in their old age.

This strike is not an overreaction to a minor dispute over the reform of the pension system. It is part of an ongoing struggle to resist the ConDem government’s attempt to pull the plug on the already comatose social contract in this country. They wish to further increase the already immense inequalities that characterise wage distribution in the UK. The result of pension reform will be the impoverishment of large swathes of the nation in order to reinforce a neo-liberal status quo that continues to show itself interested only in the ends of capital accumulation. The strike on November 30th is therefore an attempt by the working classes to fight back, to seize a shred of autonomy at the site of greatest contact with capital: the workplace.

In proposing a token fifteen-minute strike on November 30th Francis Maude seems finally to have swallowed whole the press briefings that eagerly proclaim him the ‘good cop’, the man the unions can do a deal with. In offering such an incoherent solution he has revealed his complete inability to understand the purpose of the strike. It is not a symbolic show of dissent, where one disagrees before accepting whatever comes next with the silent deference due to masters. It is not a quarter of an hour outside before popping back onto the computer and hoping you won’t get your pay docked (otherwise known as a fag break). If it is anything, a strike is an economic weapon, its message is its force and direct impact, and to reduce it to a symbol means it’s no longer a strike.

Though not enough to achieve victory by itself, a day strike, when part of cumulative action organised by the workers themselves, can have an impact, and can change the course of negotiations. It can also encourage others to act against the injustices of the present political and economic situation.

One occupation here, another strike there may not be enough to defeat government or an economic system, but when people, en masse, work together to fight back against their political and economic exploitation, they start to offer a vision of the alternative. More importantly, they begin to articulate practical ways of realising a different world of their own making.

Rees Arnott Davies is a second year Art Historian at Emma

No: Strikes are rarely effective and those against the Government are particularly fruitless, says James Mottram

On November 30th, public sector workers are scheduled to go out on strike, in protest of the Government’s proposed reforms to their pensions, which would see some public servants making higher contributions to fund them. Union bosses have defended their decision to strike by claiming that action is necessary to protect workers’ interests, while the Government has argued that negotiations on the details of pension reform should continue.

On this point, the Government is entirely in the right. Of course employees have the right to petition their employer for a better deal; the question is whether the specific method of a strike will be effective and appropriate.

Strikes are rarely effective, and strikes against the Government are particularly fruitless; the Government is not a company which will lose money during a period of strike action. The only people hurt by strikes are employees who lose a day’s pay and members of the public who are deprived of services. Strikes are also, by their very nature, confrontational. By walking out, workers transform the situation from one of negotiation to one of conflict, and in doing so present themselves as antagonists, rather than as reasonable participants in the ongoing discussion. Additionally, it is likely to stiffen the Government’s resolve; thus far, they has been open to accommodation, willing to dilute their proposals somewhat to take into account the concerns of workers. A strike offers the Government vindication should they chose to walk away from the table and enforce their full programme – if one side is keen to embrace confrontation, why should the other not follow suit?

A more damaging aspect of the proposed strike is the political tone which has grown around it; the more hard-left union bosses and many anti-cuts campaigners have adopted the strike as a protest against the Government itself. The risk for public sector workers in making the strike a political issue is not only in jeopardising further talks, but in losing the sympathy of the public. Public opinion is a much greater influence on politicians than withdrawal of labour, and by appearing needlessly belligerent the unions are likely to lose public support, which in reality is their only bargaining chip. The purpose of a union is to defend its members’ interests; given this duty, pragmatism is no vice – the Government has a solid majority and will not swerve from such a key policy. A realistic goal would be to work to ensure that these reforms have the minimum adverse effects on workers; what is not realistic is to attempt to bring down the government.

Whether public sector workers are right to insist that they are entitled to better pensions than those enjoyed by most working people, is neither here nor there. What is important is that to carry on the business of government, the politicians and the public servants must reach an agreement on these reforms. A strike makes this less likely, and particularly makes the position of the workers weaker. The Government has shown itself to be open to compromise; I believe most public sector workers would also take a realistic view and accept that compromise is inevitable. It is only the union leadership, who seem intent upon a strike, and their reasons for one are tenuous; trade union bosses are, by definition, professional negotiators, and surely realise that the heart of negotiation is compromise. The only motives for strike action while negotiations are ongoing are political, and in pursuing a political course at the expense of their members’ interests, union bosses are neglecting their real duty.

James Mottram is a second year English student at Selwyn