Leading article: No time for a winter of discontent

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The Independent Online

Today will see Britain's biggest strike for a generation, perhaps the largest since the General Strike of 1926. Two million public-sector workers look set to stop work for 24 hours in protest at government plans to reform their pensions. It is an understandable cry of rage from ordinary people bearing the brunt of a prolonged financial crisis which was none of their making. It is why so many, like the headteachers, who have never before voted to strike, will not be turning up for work.

But if the strike, and that deep anger, are understandable, they are also self-destructive. It is true there is just cause for complaint. Teachers, civil servants, immigration workers and the rest are being asked to work longer, pay more contributions and take smaller pensions when they retire. But they are not alone. Workers in the private sector have suffered even more. Some two million jobs have been lost there since the start of the recession. Those still in work have seen their wages rise at only half the rate of inflation. Even after the proposed reforms, the provision for public servants remains significantly more generous than for those in the private sector. And public pensions are not subject to the vagaries of the market as those in the private sector are.

The Government has not handled this well. It did not, early on, provide detail on how the changes will affect individuals, which has raised anxieties. But these reforms are not, as union militants suggest, some piece of knee-jerk Tory atavistic enthusiasm to do down ordinary working people. Successive governments have under-estimated the growing cost of pensions as the population has increased and people live longer. This burden has been thrown on to a younger generation of taxpayers, who will be unable to sustain it at the levels required. The current squeeze in public finances has brought that home more quickly, but change was inevitable.

This strike is badly timed. Britain's stuttering economy is on the brink of recession. The crisis in the eurozone threatens constantly to spread to the UK. To say that we are all in this together is not Tory rhetoric but the plain truth. This is no time for another winter of discontent.