As many as 750,000 teachers and civil servants are expected to join today's strikes. Millions of others face severe inconvenience or financial loss: from parents who stay at home because their children's schools are closed to people wanting to enter or leave the country.
It should be stressed that not all public-sector staff will be striking. Many NHS staff, transport workers and others are not involved, although their unions do not exclude action in future. This is nothing like a general strike, nor even a strike by the whole public sector – though there are those on both sides of the public-private divide with an interest in presenting it as such.
There is no doubt that many public sector workers are angry, frustrated and disillusioned on the very specific issue that is the focus of today's protest: moves by the Government to change the terms and conditions of public-service pensions. And they are not completely wrong when they argue that long-standing terms of employment are threatened or that pensions have been a plus for the public sector in recruiting and keeping staff.
But these arguments ignore the bigger picture. In pension provision, Britain is rapidly becoming two nations. One nation can look forward to a pension which, while not necessarily qualifying for the description "gold-plated", is secure and bears a predictable relation to salary and years of service. The other nation – which comprises the vast majority of the working population – increasingly cannot. In most private companies, secure final-salary schemes are a thing of the past. Contributions are higher, the returns mostly lower, and the pensionable age higher than in the public sector – if there is a pension scheme at all.
Without reform, there will be a generational aspect, too, with younger workers required to pay higher taxes to fund a style of retirement for others that they themselves will never enjoy. This is a recipe for resentment; it is also patently unjust.
Public-sector trade unions have marshalled several arguments in an effort to fend off the inevitable. They say that the financial crisis was caused by the banks – that is, by the private sector – so it is unfair to make public-sector workers pay. This disregards not only the fact that the private sector extends far beyond the banks, but also the chief reason why Lord Hutton described the public sector pension system as untenable: the rapid rise in life-expectancy. Where pensions are concerned, this generally good news becomes bad, and the public sector cannot expect to be exempt from the costs it entails.
The public-sector argument that today's strikes are defending the quality of future recruitment – heard principally from the teachers – is also disingenuous. Even if the changes recommended by the Hutton review are enacted in full, public servants will still enjoy an advantage over many private-sector workers in terms of the security and size of their pensions in relation to contributions. The further argument – that the relative generosity of public-sector pensions was designed to offset relatively lower pay – is out of date. Increasingly the opposite is true, especially if working hours are taken into account.
Which is not to say that there is not, or should not be, room for negotiation in the talks that must surely come between the Government and trade unions. There are discussions to be had about the pace of change and protection for the low paid, beyond what is already envisaged. But the widening pensions gap between workers in the private and the public sector, and the envy, anger and mutual ignorance that attend it, cannot simply be wished away. Today's strikes, however solid the support, will do nothing to change that harsh reality.Reuse content