Why we are right to strike

There will be more to come if the government doesn't start meeting the needs of ordinary people.

Two days before the largest strike in a generation, I addressed a packed hall of trade union members in Glasgow. They were united and determined to resist this government's raid on their pensions - and that was before they'd heard George Osborne's autumn statement.

Perhaps one prescient member had been given a sneak preview, since she told me: "If we don't stand up for pensions today, they'll come for our pay or our jobs tomorrow."

Public-sector workers face working longer and paying more to get a smaller pension, despite their existing arrangements being entirely affordable and sustainable. The proposed increase in pension contributions is a tax on working in the public sector - all going to the Treasury, not a penny towards improving pensions. It's robbery.

Workers are in the second year of a pay freeze - years that have coincided with rampant inflation. They now face two further years of below-inflation pay rises, at the end of which their living standards will be 15 to 20 per cent lower.

The government replies that many private-sector workers have suffered pay freezes and lost their pensions. My union has nearly 30,000 private-sector members, but we've never argued for an equality of misery. The government would like us to compare public- and private-sector workers in some sort of depraved competition for the worst lot, to distract us from the vast gap between what is imposed on ordinary workers and how a tiny elite at the top carries on.

The differences between public and private are overplayed: the average public-sector pension is £5,600, while for private-sector workers in defined benefit schemes the average is £5,800 - roughly the same modest amount. But while 85 per cent of public-sector workers are in defined benefit schemes, only 11 per cent of private-sector workers are.

Wilful greed

That scandalously low figure in the private sector is a result of the wilful greed of top directors, who have closed pension schemes while protecting their own nest eggs. These directors have an average pension of £175,000 per year and last year their pay increased by 49 per cent, on average.

All of us pay for that private-sector greed through higher prices in the shops, higher bills, higher fares and by missing out on tax revenues as many wealthy individuals and big business hide their money away offshore - an option not available to ordinary taxpayers - but which costs us all £120bn a year in lost revenues.

This cosseted elite, including many of the current Cabinet, have never had to worry about paying the bills, going into arrears on their rent or mortgage, or even having to choose - as many pensioners will this winter - between adequately heating or eating.

The day before the strike, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimated that public-sector employment will fall by 710,000. In the past three months alone, civil servants have seen 24,000 of their fellow workers leave. This is damaging public services from borders to tax collection. Even in the so-called "protected" areas, such as the NHS, 26,000 staff have been forced out in the past quarter.

With falling living standards, the prospect of an impoverished retirement and their own jobs increasingly under threat, public-sector workers are understandably angry. As in any confrontation, some have wanted to keep their heads down and hope it doesn't affect them but there is an increasing realisation that we need to unite and stand up to this bullying government.

On picket lines and in marches and rallies across the country, that is being demonstrated. If the government does not change course and start meeting the needs of ordinary people, more and escalating strike action, occupations and protests will be inevitable in 2012.

Growth strategy

A BBC opinion poll just before the strike showed 61 per cent thought it was justified, while only 36 per cent disagreed. Why should that be? There is a growing awareness that the wrong people are being made to pay for a crisis they had no role in creating. That same poll showed only 28 per cent believed the government is handling the economy well; 67 per cent disagreed.

People are rightly asking why the government is slashing over £20bn from welfare and imposing £9,000 fees on students, when it can afford to give away £25bn in business tax breaks? Why public-sector pensions are now unaffordable yet nuclear weapons a necessity? Why young people get six months in jail for stealing bottled water, while big business can avoid paying billions in taxes with impunity?

There is a creeping sense of injustice and a realisation that the government is on the side of its fellow millionaires. But there's also something positive going on: solidarity - a further awareness that, underneath the millionaire cabinet and its City friends, we are all in this together.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism