Strike one to the Unions

Posted on: 01 December 2011 by Alexander Hay

The unions scored a middling victory yesterday, but have much left to do if they are to achieve their aims. The government, meanwhile, seems more keen on holding grudges, personal insults and trying desperately to play their defeat down

A victory of sorts, but what will the unions do next? Image c/o Alan Denney @ FlickrWere yesterday's strikes justified? Indeed they were. Given that the government was trying to welsh on the deal it made with those state workers that went on strike, it showed it couldn't be trusted, and the only response to that was to be just as unreasonable but, at least, honest about it.

Naturally, there is a reasonable argument that those who get jobs working for the state after a certain date should be excluded from the more generous pension schemes of older workers. That may sound perverse, but the terms of a reasonable contract ought to be adhered to.

If the government honoured its word and made clear that any new employees in the state sector would have to accept a lesser deal due to the parlous state of the economy, that would have to be acceptable. Though, given the billions spent on the Libyan war and Trident, you may ponder at your leisure as to how poor the government really is.

Instead, the government picked a fight for ugly ideological reasons. Cameron's rumoured claim that he was 'delighted' at luring the unions into what he sees as a trap may or may not be true. But there is certainly an irrational, tribal obsession with the public sector amongst Conservative MPs and fellow travellers.

That the government was willing to have a day of disruption befalling the whole country in order to commence this vendetta is telling. So too was their relentless campaign of smears directed at the protesters themselves. There is no surer sign of losing an argument than reverting to ad hominems.

In this, they have been assisted by the right wing press, which has gone out of its way to play down the protests, belittle the protesters or, in Jeremy Clarkson's case, apologise profusely after calling for union members to be executed in front of their families.

But the strikes succeeded. Of the polls taken, most featured a majority in favour of the strikers. While it was constantly repeated that striking public sector workers were still getting better pension deals than those in the private sectors, most realised that what this really meant was that pension schemes had been so ruined and undermined by previous governments that even a dinner lady's occupational pension was going to look more generous. The Divide and Rule tactics, once again, were most telling.

But did the strike succeed in other ways? The most obvious way it was said to have failed was at the airports, which were the source of many a smug tweet and online comment about how empty (and more efficient) they were with passport control staff out at the pickets.

In fact, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the passport inspectors on strike, many people and airlines cancelled their flights and stayed away from the airports, meaning that those who did were guaranteed a quick trip through customs in any case.

And while the strikes didn't close down '80% of schools', they did shut 62% in England alone, with the rest offering less than a full service in many cases. If other civil servants were too scared, or poor, to go on strike (or work at Job Centres), the fact remains that the strikes still hobbled the country in a way that must have scared the government greatly. Otherwise, why expend so much effort in blackening their name?

Doubtless, the strike and the governments response are both storing up enough contempt and hatred to make the 2015 General Election very interesting indeed. In the interim, families are facing a fall in living standards and no sign of recovery any time soon. You'd strike too, if you could.

In summary then, the strikes were a victory, but not a decisive one, for the strikers. Their next move will decide whether they succeed, or alienate the public if organised and timed in the wrong way, and it is yet to be seen what effect the strikes had on ongoing negotiations between the government and unions.

One surprising beneficiary may, however, be the retail sector. As 'footfall' in many shops and shopping centres increased care of the strikes, they may in fact have helped the private sector. After all, if you're off work and looking after the children or on strike, you may as well spend some money - though the unions' concern that they will have less to spend in any case is one that has not yet been resolved.

Image C/O Alan Denney @ FLICKR

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Alexander Hay

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