30 November 2011. The largest single day of industrial action the United Kingdom has seen since the 1970s. I was on strike, as were school and nursery, so the kids and I went into Edinburgh to take part in the march to the Parliament at Holyrood.
The government has suggested this strike is the work of militants and old-school class warriors- and of course there were some of those there, along with the new-school class warriors of the Occupy movement– but they were very much in the minority as we made our way down the Royal Mile. The people in the streets of Edinburgh were head teachers, who have never voted to strike before in the history of their union, university lecturers, nurses, care workers, museum workers, court staff, local government workers and managers alike. I’m guessing at least 65% of us were women. Some very well paid, some very low, most probably about average.
The lack of informed discussion in the media and in the chambers of government is frustrating. The ease with which public sector workers have been demonised for the failings of bankers and politicians of all parties–is infuriating. The failure of the chattering classes to demand a more intelligent debate is typical.
So all we can do is try to articulate our own reasons for lining up behind the union banner. These are mine.
1) Pensions. The issue at the heart of the dispute but possibly only the last of many straws. The argument is that if you live longer, you should expect to work longer. Well, okay…provided you are healthy. A great many people are not, at 67. And what if you’re not fit enough to do your job? You leave work (because it’s pretty bloody hard to find alternative employment in your 60s, ask anyone who has tried it) and go onto benefits? Public spending goes up instead of down. And the move to the career-average earning from the final salary scheme…God help you if you’ve chosen to work part time for even a relatively short chunk of your career to be an active rather than an absent parent.
2) These pension cuts will affect women more severely, and in far greater numbers, than they will men. This is a reversal of the Equal Pay movement by the back door.
3) Public sector pensions are still better than private sector ones. Well…yes, at the moment. Folks in the private sector have it rough these days as well. (Some of them. The bankers still have it pretty good.) So what? I don’t want the people who are teaching my children, patrolling my streets or looking after me in hospital to be so demoralised, angry and worried about poverty that they can’t do their jobs well.
4) We public sector workers are taxpayers too. In some parts of this country, we amount to the MAJORITY of the working, tax-paying population. If you push us into poverty- either through pay caps in a time of of ever-rising inflation, job cuts or pension cuts, you cut your tax income. Which leads us on to…
5. The Paradox of Thrift. Cutting too hard too fast at a time of high inflation and high unemployment is very likely to increase public debt over both the short and longer term, rather than reduce it. Even the IMF says so.
These were just a few of the things going through my head as I waved my Unison flag today, and as I read some of the more reactionary newspaper commentary and Facebook posts afterwards. I’ve been reading a lot of economics articles and research these days- intellectually, I am reassured that there is evidence to back up what I believe in my core to be correct. It felt correct to be part of that torrent of bodies flowing down the ancient Old Town street. It feels correct that Jamie and Susanna now understand what a strike is, what it’s like to march and sing and raise their voices, what a union is (or at least should be) and what a picket line is. For their sakes, I hope they never have to stand on one for more than a single day.