Leading article: Strikes that will only extend the pain

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The Independent Online

Clashes between police and demonstrators marked Greece's third general strike this year to protest against austerity measures. In Spain, sit-ins against joblessness, corruption and incompetent government continue in several cities. As trade unions here announce a joint day of strikes for 30 June, the question is posed: will Britain be next to see mass anti-government protest?

The immediate triggers, of course, are particular to each country. Here, it is the public sector up in arms over pay freezes, job cuts, and pension changes. Three months ago, up to half a million people took part in a protest march through London. The strikes could bring out at least half as many again, with schools, colleges and job centres closed, and courts, customs and other offices affected.

The likely damage to an already battered economy is the most obvious reason why the Government should do its utmost to prevent these strikes. The knock-on effect of closed schools is that parents stay away from work; disrupted transport and borders harm business. Yet the price being demanded by the public sector unions – an about-turn on job cuts and minimal change to pension arrangements – stands to be massively higher.

So far, the burden of the recession, including the almost universal phasing out of final-salary pension schemes – has fallen predominantly on the private sector, and especially on the medium- to low-paid. Public-sector staff can no longer defend their pensions as fair compensation for low pay; public-sector pay and jobs rose, even as private companies cut back. The disparity in pension provision is now such as to be producing two classes: those who can afford to retire and those – tax-payers all – who cannot. This gap is not just financially, but socially, unsustainable.

With a head of steam building behind 30 June as a day of protest, it may be vain to hope that the strikes will be called off. Thereafter, though, the public sector must recognise that it too has a trade-off to make between pay, jobs and pensions, and should be ready to apply some of the same ingenuity that sections of the private sector have shown in trying to minimise the pain.

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