5 Reasons for Marching

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.

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Quiet complicity

I stirred up some hornets at work today.

My employer, like so many now in the public sector, is bringing in a new system for assessing the performance of staff. For better or worse, annual incremental pay rises will now be linked to performance. This morning I had my first look at the bit of paper which will form the basis of employees’ annual appraisal, and there in hard black print, are the following words:

If no increment is being awarded please select the reason below: Minimum time not met – Maternity  leave 

I sat there blinking at this for a moment, then popped my head up above the computer screen and said, “Hey guys, have you read this?  This can’t be right.”

“Rebecca,” my colleague asked me with a sly grin, “do you have something to tell us?”

“No, I most certainly do not. I am not pregnant and have no plans to be ever again.” I felt my voice rising and cheeks flushing. “That’s not the point.”

The point is that to deny someone the chance of a pay increase because they have taken the maternity leave to which they have a right is, in my mind, quite certainly illegal under UK Equalities legislation. There is no reference to paternity leave or any other type of family leave which might be taken by either a mother or a father. Only maternity leave. Only leave taken by women.

“I’m raising a complaint about this.”

And my colleagues’ heads disappeared quickly behind their own computers, eager perhaps to dissociate themselves from the rebel in the corner.  “Ooh,” said one, like she was trying not to laugh, “good luck with that.”

To give my employer the benefit of the doubt, this is a careless oversight rather than a blatantly discriminatory move against women. I certainly hope so, anyway. And I hope they are willing to rewrite this without any kind of protracted argument. But all day I’ve been riding a wave of indignation, partly at the words on the form but also at the failure of some of my colleagues– my FEMALE colleagues–to display the same anger that had so overwhelmed me. Why didn’t their jaws hit the desk the way mine did?

And I can’t help but think that it’s because we have become so afraid, as employees and as a society, to speak up against the injustices that are done to us by those in power that we pretend we don’t see them. We are going to wake up one day soon and find that all the things our grandmothers and grandfathers fought and sometimes died for are gone. Things like equality and fair pay and workers’ rights. We don’t speak up because we’ve swallowed a myth. The myth is that you can always achieve more. You can always improve. With right attitude and the right gadgets you can always please more people with less money, less time, less medicine, less service, more more more for less less less. You can split yourself into ever tinier bits so that you can do right by your boss, your customers, your children, your partner, your 1,752 Facebook friends, your dog, your cat, and last but of course not least yourself, all at the same time. You can have continuous economic growth without some fundamentals eventually drying up and breaking down. Over the last day or so, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that Steve Jobs made the world a better place. Without denying the genius of the man and his inventions- one of which I am now typing on- I have to wonder: did he really? Is the world really a better place because you can take all your work home with you on your iPhone?

To be quiet in the face of overt injustice is to be complicit in it, so goes the saying. A voice in my head tells me I shouldn’t publish this particular blog. I could get hauled over the coals for this. Another, stronger voice, which sounds curiously like that of my dear late grandmother Lucy- who never learned to bite her tongue-tells me I have to.