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

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Theresa May's offer to EU citizens leaves the 3 million with unanswered questions

So many EU citizens, so little time.

Ahead of the Brexit negotiations with the 27 remaining EU countries, the UK government has just published its pledges to EU citizens living in the UK, listing the rights it will guarantee them after Brexit and how it will guarantee them. The headline: all 3 million of the country’s EU citizens will have to apply to a special “settled status” ID card to remain in the UK after it exist the European Union.

After having spent a year in limbo, and in various occasions having been treated by the same UK government as bargaining chips, this offer will leave many EU citizens living in the UK (this journalist included) with more questions than answers.

Indisputably, this is a step forward. But in June 2017 – more than a year since the EU referendum – it is all too little, too late. 

“EU citizens are valued members of their communities here, and we know that UK nationals abroad are viewed in the same way by their host countries.”

These are words the UK’s EU citizens needed to hear a year ago, when they woke up in a country that had just voted Leave, after a referendum campaign that every week felt more focused on immigration.

“EU citizens who came to the UK before the EU Referendum, and before the formal Article 50 process for exiting the EU was triggered, came on the basis that they would be able to settle permanently, if they were able to build a life here. We recognise the need to honour that expectation.”

A year later, after the UK’s Europeans have experienced rising abuse and hate crime, many have left as a result and the ones who chose to stay and apply for permanent residency have seen their applications returned with a letter asking them to “prepare to leave the country”, these words seem dubious at best.

To any EU citizen whose life has been suspended for the past year, this is the very least the British government could offer. It would have sounded a much more sincere offer a year ago.

And it almost happened then: an editorial in the Evening Standard reported last week that Theresa May, then David Cameron’s home secretary, was the reason it didn’t. “Last June, in the days immediately after the referendum, David Cameron wanted to reassure EU citizens they would be allowed to stay,” the editorial reads. “All his Cabinet agreed with that unilateral offer, except his Home Secretary, Mrs May, who insisted on blocking it.” 

"They will need to apply to the Home Office for permission to stay, which will be evidenced through a residence document. This will be a legal requirement but there is also an important practical reason for this. The residence document will enable EU citizens (and their families) living in the UK to demonstrate to third parties (such as employers or providers of public services) that they have permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK."

The government’s offer lacks details in the measures it introduces – namely, how it will implement the registration and allocation of a special ID card for 3 million individuals. This “residence document” will be “a legal requirement” and will “demonstrate to third parties” that EU citizens have “permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK.” It will grant individuals ““settled status” in UK law (indefinite leave to remain pursuant to the Immigration Act 1971)”.

The government has no reliable figure for the EU citizens living in the UK (3 million is an estimation). Even “modernised and kept as smooth as possible”, the administrative procedure may take a while. The Migration Observatory puts the figure at 140 years assuming current procedures are followed; let’s be optimistic and divide by 10, thanks to modernisation. That’s still 14 years, which is an awful lot.

To qualify to receive the settled status, an individual must have been resident in the UK for five years before a specified (although unspecified by the government at this time) date. Those who have not been a continuous UK resident for that long will have to apply for temporary status until they have reached the five years figure, to become eligible to apply for settled status.

That’s an application to be temporarily eligible to apply to be allowed to stay in the UK. Both applications for which the lengths of procedure remain unknown.

Will EU citizens awaiting for their temporary status be able to leave the country before they are registered? Before they have been here five years? How individuals will prove their continuous employment or housing is undisclosed – what about people working freelance? Lodgers? Will proof of housing or employment be enough, or will both be needed?

Among the many other practicalities the government’s offer does not detail is the cost of such a scheme, although it promises to “set fees at a reasonable level” – which means it will definitely not be free to be an EU citizen in the UK (before Brexit, it definitely was.)

And the new ID will replace any previous status held by EU citizens, which means even holders of permanent citizenship will have to reapply.

Remember that 140 years figure? Doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

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