Public sector workers striking. Photo: Getty
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Frozen out of the recovery: 2,245 reasons why public sector workers are on strike today

The TUC’s calculation that public sector workers are on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government came to power is timely, and explains today's strikes.

The TUC’s calculation that public sector workers are on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government came to power is timely, published yesterday, a day ahead of the largest strike action to take place since 2010. The TUC highlights how the people affected by continued pay restraint – the home helps, refuse collectors, teachers and firefighters, among others – are often the public servants on whom we depend on most. These people are currently facing the prospect of another four years with pay rises significantly lower than the increase in the cost of living.

Just under half a million public sector workers are paid below the living wage. It was pointed out to me recently that some of these lowest paid workers might effectively lose more than the equivalent of the 1 per cent pay rise being offered if they go on strike. The implicit argument was that it would be better to put up with, what by 2018 will be over a decade of falling wages, than fight back. There comes a point, however, when gratitude that you have a job is outweighed by a sense that fairness ought also to be included in the mix. This is unsustainable. There is a limit to how long people can make do, juggling bills and food costs and getting by with rising rents and the threat of increased mortgage rates. Industrial action among unionised workers is sometimes an almost inevitable and entirely justified last resort.

A government that tells us "we are all in it together" when we can all accept things are truly tough needs to recognise the implied contract that everyone will benefit when things – as they tell us they are – start to improve. This is not happening. Public sector workers are being frozen out of the recovery in a high-handed manner that understandably breeds frustration and disillusionment.

This government has done little to help those on low pay. In work poverty is on the increase and we know many of those who resort to emergency aid from food banks are from working households. The voluntary approach to the living wage is currently failing and will only work if ministers and Mayors literally put their money where their mouths are. The Brixton Ritzy cinema workers, who will also be on strike tomorrow, are a case in point. If employees are told that if their employer can afford to pay a living wage, they should, will at some point stop asking politely. Equally, if Scotland and Northern Ireland can negotiate to resolve their fire pensions dispute, it is hardly surprising that the Fire Brigades Union believes the Westminster government should follow suit, and therefore escalate their action accordingly when it refuses.

At the other end of the scale, high paid executives apparently need to be rewarded to ensure they do their jobs, and we are not seeing the kind of restraint that Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has urged banks to adopt. The High Pay Centre, an independent think tank on pay inequality, calculate that today the average salary of a FTSE 100 chief executive so far this year is £2,208,829 and that a CEO at this level will take home more in three days than an employee earns in a year. To these people – and seemingly to the government – £2,245 is neither here nor there.

Strikes are always a last resort and, with individual strikes getting limited publicity, it is hardly surprising that trade unions are choosing to call co-ordinated action. Trade unions are there to defend their members and there are 2,245 reasons for a strike to take place now.

Fiona Twycross is the London Assembly Labour Group economy spokesperson

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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