Leading article: Strikes that can only delay the inevitable

There are discussions to be had about the pace of change. But the wider issue cannot be wished away

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London