The opposition of the public-sector unions to the Coalition is building. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) voted yesterday to hold a strike ballot in response to the Government's plans to reform public-sector pensions. This follows similar votes by the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The Government is due to set out its "general principles" for pension reform next month. Through these votes, the unions are sending an unambiguous message that they will fight hard to protect their existing pension rights.
The review of public-sector pensions by the former Labour cabinet minister Lord Hutton recommended a shift from "final salary" to "career average" pension schemes. The purpose is to make the system fairer. But it is also to save money. The NAHT claims that its members could lose £100,000 on average. Russell Hobby, the NAHT general secretary, argues that his members feel "angry and betrayed" by this proposal since they regard the generous pension scheme as a compensation for the fact that they could have enjoyed higher pay in the private sector. Perhaps they do, but if so they are mistaken. Hutton's report found no evidence that public-sector workers are paid significantly less than private-sector employees. Moreover, final salary pensions, of the sort enjoyed by teachers, have almost disappeared from the private sector.
Some of the delegates yesterday gave the impression of being semi-detached from the real world. One bemoaned the fact that headteachers face the prospect of "paying more, working longer and getting less". Yet that is the prospect that faces almost every worker in Britain. It is hard to see why headteachers, uniquely, should enjoy taxpayer-funded protection from that harsh reality.
Of course, teachers, like all public-sector workers, need to be treated fairly. Hutton was clear that the public sector should not adopt the meanest practices seen in the private sector, but should seek to set a standard. It is reasonable for public-sector unions to demand this of the Government. But total opposition to a necessary reform would be foolish and self-defeating.