Barring any unexpected concessions from the government, two million workers will walk out on 30 November in the biggest strike since the Winter of Discontent at the end of the 1970s. Twenty-six trade unions will take part, including, for the first time in its history, the National Association of Head Teachers. The proximate cause of the strike is the government's public-sector pensions reforms but the planned "day of action" is also intended as a wider protest against the coalition's austerity programme, principally its decision to impose the biggest cuts in public services since 1945. Stripped of the right to call a general strike by Margaret Thatcher, the unions have picked a battle that allows for maximum co-ordination across the public sector.
Ministers have presented unions with an improved pensions offer but the majority of workers will still pay more, work longer and receive less. Employees will be forced to contribute an average of 3.2 per cent more to their pension funds, while the decision to uprate benefits in line with the Consumer Prices Index, rather than the more generous Retail Prices Index, has already reduced the value of some pensions by 15 per cent. Were the current system genuinely "unaffordable", there would be an indisputable case for reform. But all available evidence suggests that this is not the case. The Hutton report, commissioned by the government and used by ministers to justify the reforms, states that payments will "fall gradually to around 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product in 2059-2060, after peaking at 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2010-2011".
Supporters of the reforms frequently note that two-thirds of private-sector employees do not even have a company pension, compared to just 12 per cent of public-sector workers. This is an argument for improving provision in the private sector, not for driving it down in the public sector. Indeed, many pensionless private-sector workers depend on their partner's public-sector pension to ensure a basic standard of living in old age.
Francis Maude, who along with the Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander is leading the pension negotiations for the government, has responded to the prospect of industrial action by threatening to tighten Britain's anti-strike laws, already some of the most restrictive in the western world. He has hinted that a minimum turnout threshold of 40 per cent could be introduced for strike ballots. This would have prevented action by some of the biggest unions, including Unison (turnout: 29 per cent) and Unite (turnout: 31 per cent). In the case of Unison, this still means that no fewer than 245,358 workers voted in favour of strike action. Richard Balfe, David Cameron's union emissary, once spoke glowingly of the unions as "great, voluntary organisations". However one chooses to define "the big society", it is clear that the trade unions, with a combined membership of 6.5 million, are part of it. This makes the coalition's failure to negotiate with them in good faith all the more surprising.The government's decision to embark on the most punitive austerity programme of any major economy meant that a collision was inevitable. As the self-defeating nature of the coalition's policies becomes clearer, sympathy for the plight of public-sector workers will grow.
A year ago, George Osborne promised the House of Commons that private-sector job creation would "far outweigh" the job losses in the public sector. Yet the figures tell a different story. In the last quarter, 111,000 public-sector jobs were lost, while just 41,000 private-sector jobs were created. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has warned that 610,000 public-sector jobs will be lost by 2016 - 200,000 more than forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility - and has urged the government to call a halt to its job cuts.
In times of economic crisis, the state must fulfil its historic role as the employer of last resort, especially when the incumbent government has no coherent strategy for growth.
At the root of the current downturn is a collapse in consumer demand precipitated by the alarmism of coalition ministers and their hyperbolic claim that Britain was on "the brink of bankruptcy". Increasing VAT to 20 per cent before the recovery was secure merely exacerbated people's unease and reluctance to spend.
Confronted by a floundering government and let down by an enfeebled Labour Party, many workers feel they have little alternative but to withdraw their labour on 30 November. The strikes are not an expression of a return to 1980s-style militancy. They are a sign of our times of fear and insecurity.