Sunday, November 27, 2011

within striking distance

I’ve been mulling posting something on this subject for the last few days. In principle, I’m supportive of public sector workers’ strike action (especially secondary school teachers!) on 30 November and, despite my retired status, intend to join the College Green demonstration in Bristol on the day.
My thoughts on the subject are somewhat muddled, but here goes (I’ve tried to give a balanced view)…
1. Personally, I can’t really afford to retire but, after making sacrifices and working VERY hard all my life, I am determined to explore and enjoy new things whilst I’m still fit and healthy enough to do so (my parents died when they were 70 and 71).
2. I was an architect in my “former life” and, for nearly 30 years, ran my own practice. Being self-employed and largely responsible for the financial well-being of my staff, this was extremely tough at times. Not only was the idea of me making pension contributions laughably impractical, but I was also frequently having to subsidise the practice in order to avoid having to make staff redundant during difficult times. There were good times too and I endeavoured to try to make up the short-fall, but it remained very difficult. As a result, my pension contributions have been inconsistent and my annuity choices frequently unwise (sometimes disastrously so!). Like many individuals, my annuities have been badly affected by the global financial crisis of recent years.
3. So, against this background, I’m perhaps understandably envious of the guaranteed pension provisions available to public sector workers – providing they are prepared to put in the necessary years of service (and pay extra contributions, work longer etc)… incidentally, it’ll be virtually impossible for teachers still to be teaching at the age of 68 - they will be burnt out LONG before then (and if you don’t believe me, YOU try dealing with some very poorly behaved, confrontational teenagers for six lessons a day)!
4. I know of many low-paid or self-employed people for whom the prospect of private pension provision is impossible. They too will be envious of public sector pensions. Many people in the private sector have no proper pension provision; surely, the government should be acting on this, rather than attacking public sector pensions (85% of public sector employees are in a pension scheme, compared with 40% in the private sector)?
5. On the other hand, many people working in the private sector have very generous pension packages, share options etc. The average director of a FTSE 100 company now has a pension pot worth £3.9million.
6. Large pension deficits in companies’ final-salary pension plans have driven most to close their schemes, removing the benefit from those working in the private sector. I think most public sector workers accept that pension arrangements do have to be adjusted to take account of longer life-expectancies.
7. The government keeps going on about the strikes being wrong because “negotiations are ongoing” (in reality, progress in negotiations has been painfully slow – and it’s in the government’s interests not to “rush” things!). In PR terms, the government actually wants the maximum disruption to the public - it suits its narrative of private sector versus public sector.
8. On average (apparently, according to Channel4 News FatCheckBlog in June this year), private sector employees are now “worse off” in their retirement – and on average their salaries are no longer any higher. Faced with those figures, David Cameron knows that most voters who don’t work for the state will back him on pension reform.
9. The fact is that public sector workers accept, from the time they first start their jobs, the terms and conditions of their employment. They appreciate that they won’t be richly rewarded financially. However, the long-standing pension arrangements are one of the few positive things related to their jobs (apart from job satisfaction for some?). Unlike in the private sector, many public sector workers (eg. most teachers, nurses, those working in the emergency services etc) do not have the same kind of flexibility to swap their careers for equivalents in the corporate world.
10. To my mind, the proposed 3% increase in contributions from public sector workers that the government is seeking to force through, is nothing to do with long-term affordability or sustainability – they’re simply being used to contribute to the short-term deficit-reduction targets over the next three or four years.
In my view, the situation has many similarities with the “occupy” protests of recent weeks – ordinary people have become sick and tired of being asked to pay (literally) for the actions of others - whilst, at the same time, they see the very rich continue virtually untouched.
The banks have not paid for the crisis they have caused. Instead the government is making ordinary people pay through its austerity programme… and, of course, public sector workers (and their pensions) are an easy target! I really think that the government is quite happy for the strike to proceed – in its eyes, it’ll be able to blame EVERY piece of “bad economy news” on the strikers.
I very much hope, even at this very late hour, that an acceptable compromise is reached and that the strike will be avoided… but I’m not holding my breath.

Photo: sign of the times? shop sign in disrepair on Park Street, Bristol.


just Gai said...

Although I shall be striking on Wednesday I have mixed feelings about industrial action. On the one hand I'm quite prepared to respond to a legitimate call out and to show solidarity with fellow members (particularly part time women workers) who will struggle to cope with the changes to our pension scheme.

On the other hand I'm not altogether convinced of the need for so much disruption when there is little chance of it having any effect on government policy.

Having said that, if this is the only way ordinary people such as myself, can make the government understand that we are fed up of suffering the consequences of an increasingly unfair economic system, then it will have been worth it.

I'll look out for you on College Green.

tallulahpetunia said...

I am also worried about the "divide and conquer" aspect of this. The Government would like to see a public v private sector fight to deflect from their own failings.
I worked in the "private sector" for 20 years as a Nanny. Low paid and with no benefits whatsoever I could hardly afford to live let alone make pension contributions. Now that I am working in the public sector I have my first ever pension and I am so grateful for it! So understandably I have mixed feelings about the strike. However I think that we as a country need to stand up to this government and protest about being forced to work until we drop dead!

bigdaddystevieB said...

Thanks both of you… I think we all have similar reservations about the strike but, at the same time, are fed up with the way this government is treating “ordinary” people like us. Sadly, with one or two exceptions, Labour’s response has been pitifully lame… which does nothing to fill me with ANY optimism about the future. By 2015, I suspect that the global economy might have improved a little (from its current low-point) and that the UK electorate will be “SO grateful” to the Tories that they’ll be re-elected for another term (without the LibDems this time, of course!).
Oh, I feel sick…