Teachers are on strike. Civil servants are on strike. University lecturers are on strike. The Grangemouth refinery which supplies much of Scotland with oil products is on strike and closed down. The Labour government is taking us back to the wild 1970s, when workers resorted to strike action against a Labour government in a destructive frenzy, which kept the UK firmly near the bottom of any list of richer countries for investors thinking of where to create jobs and do business.
I remember thinking how absurd strikes could be as a young University teacher. We were confronted by a student strike! Some of my colleagues saw it as extra holiday, some as a welcome opportunity to do some more research instead of teaching. One of my abler students in advance of the strike asked if he could shift his tutorial from a strike day to a non strike day, as he was kind enough to think the tutorial of value but he wished to show “solidarity”. I explained that he had to face the moral dilemma. If he wanted to show solidarity he also had to show sacrifice – so I would not change the tutorial date. He asked if he could come to the tutorial on the standard date by the back gate so no-one would see. I said that was fine by me. He became an incognito strike breaker. The students were, of course, striking against themselves. There was no need to give any ground over whatever their issue was.
I finally decided to leave University teaching when an unexpected visitor turned out to be a Union organiser wanting me to join a Trade Union. It reminded me that University teaching, for all the diversity of Higher Education institutions in Britain, was in many respects a nationalised monopoly. The state was the principal paymaster and in some ways the ultimate employer. Governments were likely to squeeze university pay in the long run, and were unlikely to welcome pay systems which rewarded individuals prepared to offer better work or more energy in performing their tasks. I left for employment where I could negotiate my own deal based on what I could contribute to the organisation, working alongside others who would never dream of going on strike.
The four different groups of workers on strike today all have the same grievance at base: they think the government is too mean. The Grangemouth workers will gain the most attention, because their conduct will visibly and quickly inconvenience a very large number of people in Scotland and will soon disrupt other businesses trying to work there. They will be an international advert to footloose industries and investors to avoid Scotland as it descends into industrial anarchy. The University teachers will have the least impact.
The Grangemouth strike is about the closure of the final salary pension scheme to new employees. It is a late example of a wave of pension fund closures brought about by the government decision to tax pension funds. The sad collapse of many final salary schemes is an all too predictable consequence of Brown’s high tax policies, and yet another route by which this government is driving people into tax poverty.
The teachers will only be striking in some schools, through the actions of just one Union. The strike ballot produced a minority vote for the strike allied to widespread abstention. The teachers are right that their pay award is below the increase in the Retail Price Index, but wrong to think that they are being treated badly in comparison to most workers. The majority are settling for pay awards below the current rapid rate of inflation, and below the rate of increase of the RPI. The whole public sector, including MPs, has to accept that the government has overspent and over borrowed, and now has to rein back. We should all expect a period of falling real salaries and wages as the government struggles to adjust after its excesses. MPs voted for a lower increase for themselves than recommended by the Pay review body.
It is sad that relations between the state as employer and its employees has reached this sorry impasse. Private business now experiences far fewer strikes, as employers have learnt to keep talking and to take the interests of their staff more seriously than they used to, and employees have learnt that if you strike in a competitive business you may damage the company to the point where there is no longer a job for you. The public sector is meant to believe in providing a public service. You enter it knowing that in times of expenditure restraint all have to make a sacrifice. It is a pity the Labour government made such a mess of the finances, and a bigger pity that a Labour Education Secretary cannot get on with the NUT.
At least Labour Ministers do not have to worry about the Opposition’s view on this. When Conservatives were in power Labour MPs were always tempted to support strikes and strikers and to side with them. The Conservative Opposition today is united in condemning strike action. It recommends to all the strikers to talk and to use democratic protest, whilst returning to work. It advises the government to listen, and to see what it can do within the difficult financial constraints its budget mismanagement has created.