Sean O'Grady: Unions risk becoming as irrelevant in the public sector as in the private

Most private-sector workers gave up on decent pensions and job security decades ago

Like a good general, a union leader must judge his territory carefully, marshal his forces skilfully and fight only those battles that can be won. Just like Arthur Scargill didn't when he sacrificed the National Union of Mineworkers in the bitter war of attrition that was the great strike of 1984-85. The present generation of public-sector union leaders are in danger of following King Arthur and his flying pickets into oblivion. The territory they are choosing to fight on – public-sector pensions – is especially unpromising, a senseless assault on a steep salient of hostile public opinion. Thus will Mark Serwotka, the leader of the civil service union, and the most ideologically driven and politically asinine of the union top brass, finish the job Arthur Scargill started: He will render the unions as irrelevant in the public sector as they are now in the private arena. A tragedy, and an avoidable one.

Most private-sector workers gave up going on strike, decent pensions and job security decades ago. With varying degrees of resentment they do not see why those who happen to work for the state should still enjoy such luxuries, and certainly not when public-sector salaries, which used to lag way behind, have caught up. Given that the great majority of the UK workforce works for private companies – about 25 million against only five million working for the state in one form or another – the weight of public opinion on this matter is pretty much pre-determined.

Of course if, as the unions suggest, the lowest paid were indeed being victimised by this millionaires' Cabinet the public might have some sympathy, if grudging. We forget now that the public often felt guilty about the miners' tough and dangerous working conditions – one important reason why the miners won their fights in the 1970s and still enjoyed some wider support in the 1980s. We are not such a selfish people. But this time round the appeal to compassion cannot be easily made: Coalition ministers, via the Hutton report, have guaranteed that no one earning less than £15,000 will be affected. Taking a career average for pension payments rather than final salaries also helps those on relatively modest, steady salaries through their working lives, rather than those at the very top.

"Fairness" is a powerful armament in any war, but what is fair here? Fair that a local authority "chief executive" can retire early on a six-figure pension? Fair that a hotel cleaner, a minicab driver or an apprentice on low pay has to pay tax to keep retired permanent secretaries, rail regulators, hospital administrators, outreach workers, heads of media, prison governors and ambassadors in some style? The greed of a few has given public-sector pensions, typically a few thousand pounds a year, a bad name. And what about the millions who have no retirement plan of any kind, and are wholly dependent on the state pension? The Coalition has restored the earnings link for them, an expensive commitment. Should we spend precious public funds on that and eradicating pensioner poverty – or on making sure Mervyn King, Mark Thompson and George Osborne, to name but three public servants, will want for nothing in their sunset years? It all makes the strikes look like pure self-interest.

The unions must make a tactical retreat now, the better to muster for a defence of job cuts and vital services the public does support, especially the NHS. That is a fight they can, and must, win (even Nick Clegg managed to). Unlike the miners in 1973, the teachers cannot bring the country to a halt and turn the lights out. Mild inconvenience is the most the public will feel – sufficient to add to the resentment but not painful enough to warrant a cave-in. The class war may soon be won by the Tories, almost without their trying. Lions and donkeys spring to mind.