Public sector strikes: clear message or mild nuisance?

By Alexander Bryan

On 30June, Britain will experience its biggest strike since the 1980s. Over 750,000 people will go on strike in protest over the government’s plans to increase the public sector retirement age, along with pension contributions from workers.

This is not a strike limited to a particular group within the public sector. The diversity of those taking part, from teachers and lecturers to Jobcentre workers and driving instructors is one of the most significant aspects of it.

Delays are expected for tourists arriving in and departing from the UK, as hundreds of immigration and customs officers join the strike. This has prompted the UK Border Agency to urge people to try and travel at a different time. They have also allayed concerns that strike action would compromise Britain’s security, saying that security is always the priority.

There is no doubt that the impact of the strike action will be felt beyond the arrival desks at airports, and will hit many people who are not travelling. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has claimed that 85% of schools will be either partially or entirely closed. Courts and probation services, colleges, tax offices and driving test centres will all be hit. Millions will be affected.

In terms of impact, the unions involved want to show the government the scale of opposition to their reforms of public sector pensions and to the austerity measures in general. However, if the disruption of the public is too great, then public sympathy may begin to drift away from the unions towards the government.

The involvement of teachers and teachers unions – including the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which has never taken industrial action in its 127 year history – is hugely important. According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, teachers are trusted to tell the truth by 81% of the public. However, only 34% trust trade union officials to tell the truth. If the unions want to make changes to the government’s policies, any strike action must involve people from professions that are trusted.

Few will be concerned about the calls from business leaders that the economy will suffer as a result of the strike. If large strikes become more common and the next few months become the ‘summer of discontent’, then the concerns about strike inhibiting economic growth will be more resonant. However, this seems unlikely.

The impact of strike action on the pension reforms looks to be minimal too. Negotiations are ongoing, but the government seems to be taking an increasingly hard line. David Cameron may have refrained from confrontational language in his speech to the LGA on the 28 June, but his message was very clear; pension reform is essential, and the reforms that the government is proposing are right. After such a clear endorsement, and with the government already gaining a reputation for ‘U-turns’, it seems unlikely that the reforms will be radically re-thought.

It seems that the best that public sector workers can hope for as a result of these strikes, is a better negotiated deal which would eliminate the unfair loophole, meaning that 330,000 women in their late 50s will have to work two years longer than planned. The government has invested too much political capital into this reform to back down over it.

Excessive industrial action over the summer would allow the government to win the argument by painting unions as self-interested and irresponsible. It would also allow the government to ramp up its attempts to typify public sector workers as wasteful bureaucrats with gold-plated pensions. In order for the unions to remain a respected, credible political force, they must ration their anger. If they don’t, their political influence and membership will diminish further.

The biggest effect that the strikes will have politically is on Ed Miliband. His position on the strikes – that he does not support them, but that he blames the government’s policies for them – is at best difficult to maintain, and at worst incoherent. Clearly Miliband does not feel that the moniker ‘Red Ed’ is particularly helpful, and by distancing himself from the strikes he has managed to prevent the right-wing press from claiming he is in the pocket of the unions.

It does lead one to question what form of opposition Miliband deems suitable, and on this issue as on many others, Miliband seems to be letting polls and the press decide his policy position. In order to be a significant leader of the opposition, Miliband must stop simply opposing things. The pension reforms may bring this into focus.

Millions of people will grumble on 30 June, and then on 1 July they will resume their regular routines. The impact of a one-day strike is economically minimal and leads at most to annoyance and inconvenience for those affected. The impact on the pension policy will be minimal too. Regardless of how many strike, the negotiations will happen round a table.

The simple truth is that even if the unions could get 750,000 people to strike for a long period of time, the increased economic impact and inconvenience to the public would make them look irresponsible. The unions cannot stop the government’s pension reforms, but they can change them.

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