Strikes – Labour stumbles back towards the 1970s

Teachers are on strike. Civil servants are on strike. University lecturers are on strike. The Grangemouth refinery which supplies much of Scotland with oil products is on strike and closed down. The Labour government is taking us back to the wild 1970s, when workers resorted to strike action against a Labour government in a destructive frenzy, which kept the UK firmly near the bottom of any list of richer countries for investors thinking of where to create jobs and do business.

I remember thinking how absurd strikes could be as a young University teacher. We were confronted by a student strike! Some of my colleagues saw it as extra holiday, some as a welcome opportunity to do some more research instead of teaching. One of my abler students in advance of the strike asked if he could shift his tutorial from a strike day to a non strike day, as he was kind enough to think the tutorial of value but he wished to show “solidarity”. I explained that he had to face the moral dilemma. If he wanted to show solidarity he also had to show sacrifice – so I would not change the tutorial date. He asked if he could come to the tutorial on the standard date by the back gate so no-one would see. I said that was fine by me. He became an incognito strike breaker. The students were, of course, striking against themselves. There was no need to give any ground over whatever their issue was.

I finally decided to leave University teaching when an unexpected visitor turned out to be a Union organiser wanting me to join a Trade Union. It reminded me that University teaching, for all the diversity of Higher Education institutions in Britain, was in many respects a nationalised monopoly. The state was the principal paymaster and in some ways the ultimate employer. Governments were likely to squeeze university pay in the long run, and were unlikely to welcome pay systems which rewarded individuals prepared to offer better work or more energy in performing their tasks. I left for employment where I could negotiate my own deal based on what I could contribute to the organisation, working alongside others who would never dream of going on strike.

The four different groups of workers on strike today all have the same grievance at base: they think the government is too mean. The Grangemouth workers will gain the most attention, because their conduct will visibly and quickly inconvenience a very large number of people in Scotland and will soon disrupt other businesses trying to work there. They will be an international advert to footloose industries and investors to avoid Scotland as it descends into industrial anarchy. The University teachers will have the least impact.

The Grangemouth strike is about the closure of the final salary pension scheme to new employees. It is a late example of a wave of pension fund closures brought about by the government decision to tax pension funds. The sad collapse of many final salary schemes is an all too predictable consequence of Brown’s high tax policies, and yet another route by which this government is driving people into tax poverty.

The teachers will only be striking in some schools, through the actions of just one Union. The strike ballot produced a minority vote for the strike allied to widespread abstention. The teachers are right that their pay award is below the increase in the Retail Price Index, but wrong to think that they are being treated badly in comparison to most workers. The majority are settling for pay awards below the current rapid rate of inflation, and below the rate of increase of the RPI. The whole public sector, including MPs, has to accept that the government has overspent and over borrowed, and now has to rein back. We should all expect a period of falling real salaries and wages as the government struggles to adjust after its excesses. MPs voted for a lower increase for themselves than recommended by the Pay review body.

It is sad that relations between the state as employer and its employees has reached this sorry impasse. Private business now experiences far fewer strikes, as employers have learnt to keep talking and to take the interests of their staff more seriously than they used to, and employees have learnt that if you strike in a competitive business you may damage the company to the point where there is no longer a job for you. The public sector is meant to believe in providing a public service. You enter it knowing that in times of expenditure restraint all have to make a sacrifice. It is a pity the Labour government made such a mess of the finances, and a bigger pity that a Labour Education Secretary cannot get on with the NUT.

At least Labour Ministers do not have to worry about the Opposition’s view on this. When Conservatives were in power Labour MPs were always tempted to support strikes and strikers and to side with them. The Conservative Opposition today is united in condemning strike action. It recommends to all the strikers to talk and to use democratic protest, whilst returning to work. It advises the government to listen, and to see what it can do within the difficult financial constraints its budget mismanagement has created.

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16 Comments

  1. Tony Makara
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Strikes are fundamentally political acts and have been a favourite tool of left-wing agitators in attacking the government of the day. It is wrong that those in public service, be it teaching, healthcare or local government should have the right to strike. The people working in these professions have a duty to maintain these essential services at all times. Perhaps a Conservative government might look at proscribing the act of striking in essential services? It is ridiculous that our fire brigade have been able to strike and that some even want to give our police the right to strike. These people have a duty to serve the nation, if they have a grievance over pay or conditions they should negotiate that without recourse to strike. I am not against trades unions, or against industrial action when it is justified. However our public services must always be maintained, playing politics with a child's education is not acceptable.

  2. APL
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    JR: "The state was the principal paymaster and in some ways the ultimate employer. Governments were likely to squeeze university pay in the long run,.."

    So true, but we can also see something else 'in the long run', government direction of research, government direction of admissions policy, government manipulation of the universities for its social policies. The net result is to devalue universities, devalue schools, and destroy public education in this country.

    I am furious with the modern education system. My son is currently preparing for his exams in what is supposed to be one of the better state schools in the locality. He has no text books, he has no reading lists, each time I suggest he opens a book and read up on his subject, the retort is, "but the teacher says I only need to know .. x,y,z .. to pass the exam". This is not education it is ANTI EDUCATION. Just jump through the hoops to permit the teachers to tick the boxes.

    The government has not just destroyed a reasonably good pension system in this country, they have destroyed the education system too.

  3. Tony Smith
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Mr Redwood,

    I am usually opposed to strike action and see it as a last resort to be used hardly ever. However, if my final salary pension sceme was under threat and all else had failed then I would go on strike. What else could I do to secure mine and my families future and all the money I had paid into the scheme in good faith?

    It's all well and good to say that in the case of the refinery workers that it is being closed to new entrants but we all know that once that concession was in that the existing members pensions would soon be under threat. You are an intelligent and educated man and a fine politician but many ordinary workers don't have the same capacity as you to just move into a more lucrative sector and negotiate their own pay, conditions and pensions. What are they to do if they don't exercise their right to strike?

    Reply: if you are in a competitive company and you go on strike you are undermining your own job. In this case the action needs to be directed against the government, who did the damage to pension funds.

  4. Rose
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    When academics became part of a nationalised industry, and universities one party states, they lost their independent judgement on many matters and in many subjects. I don't think this has been recognized for the damage it has done, not just to universities, but also to the country. For example, the totalitarian way in which Enoch Powell's thought on many public questions – prices and incomes, the EEC, Northern Ireland, monetarism, individual liberty and the law, immigration, and many other important areas of public policy – was suppressed by the very people who should have been examining and discussing it.

  5. Freeborn John
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how teachers would like it if they had not had a pay rise for 7 years, if the bottom performing 5% of their number were laid off each year, if their jobs were being transferred to India and China and they were being asked to pay more in tax to support sectors of the economy not exposed to international competition?

  6. Tony Smith
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Tony Makara says:

    "These people have a duty to serve the nation, if they have a grievance over pay or conditions they should negotiate that without recourse to strike."

    If they have a duty to serve the nation then the nation has a duty to pay them the going rate. If you remove the right to strike then the Government will simply pay whatever it wants to pay and impose whatever conditions it sees fit. The problem isn't necessarily public sector workers being a bunch of millitant lefties, it's more to do with the massive expansion in the public sector over the last 10 years so that the government simply cannot sustain the pay and pension bill any longer. Of course all of this was predicted but at the end of the day but it's not the individual workers fault that the government has run out of cash to pay the very people it hired in the first place.

  7. [[NAME EDITED]]
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    At least with the NUT (and we are not talking about "academics" here) there will be the compensation of a rise in educational standards for the time that they are away from school.

    Reply: There are good teachers in the NUT, and allowing children off school will not help.

  8. Stuart Fairney
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Could this not all be solved by

    (a) abolishing every education 'authority' in the land
    (b) making all schools self-governing able to offer tuition in whatever they wanted, and
    (c) giving parents education vouchers to the equivalent value of the spending per pupil in England that they could spend in whatever school they wanted

    This creates choice for parents, competition between schools and good teachers could sell their services for higher salaries. It is widely accepted that competition raises standards, where as moribund state monopolies like state education do not.

    Reply: Yes, it could. I have proposed making every school independent, and paying each parent up to an agreed maximum which would be enough to secure a good edcuation at most schools. Poeple could top it up if they wished for the smaller number of dearer schools.

  9. mikestallard
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I have been a teacher right up to retirement. I still coach and keep in touch.
    What made me stop was an end of school registration where five boys (aged 12) were five minutes late. I knew they were going to be because I had been warned. I shut them out. They banged on the door of the classroom very loudly until I let them in. They then ran up and down the gangways swearing and refusing to obey orders.
    There was absolutely nothing I could do.
    I knew that if I reported them nothing would be done. I knew that I could walk away and no one would be any the wiser (I was on supply). I simply marked them as absent and walked out.
    Teaching is like that for so many secondary teachers today. The only difference is the paperwork. Also, in 1999 the A levels and O levels were crudely swindled (I was there at the meetings of teachers for RE, History and Classics) so now there is universal cramming (see excellent post above).
    And why did the teachers put up with it?
    Their mouths, to quote, were stopped with gold.
    Now the gold has run out.
    I imagine the same has been the case with all the other workers too.
    Do you remember the poster "Don't let Labour ruin it?"
    They have done just that – again.

    Reply: I too am worried about the rise in the number of exams pupils have to take, and the concentration on learning "right answers" and "exam technique" rather than teaching a subject or discipline and trying to spark an enthusiasm or love for it. Good teachers still do so despite the system, but as you say it gets more and more difficult given the framework offered by the government.

  10. ED
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Before today I only once have I ever heard my partner angry about politics. Today was the second.

  11. Robert Tressell
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    How much do you pay your Partner to be your Researcher Mr Redwood(BBc News Today),If only striking Teachers could do that to boost their incomes eh?

    Reply: I do not employ a partner as a Researcher. Where and when did the BBC say that, for it is a libel?

  12. APL
    Posted April 24, 2008 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Robert Tressellon: "How much do you pay your Partner to be your Researcher Mr Redwood(BBc News Today),"

    Oooh! Who has been sleeping in the knife drawer then??

    Frankly, I could not care less if Redwood does or does not employ his immediate family, so long as there is evidence to show value for money.

    What we need in Parliament is transparency and accountability, which is exactly what we haven't got at the moment.

    If I had the choice, I would choose the member for Wokingham rather than (a Labour MP which the correspondent does not like -ed).

    Reply: I think it is right that people should declare any members of their family working for them, or a partner they are living with. The BBC owe me an apology as I do not employ a family member or partner at the taxpayer's expense. Taxpayers have a right to know, as these paid jobs at Westminster should be based on merit and offer value for money.

  13. Rose
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    If MPs are to declare family, then why not friends? And who is to decide where the line be drawn?

    Standards are what we want, not voyeurism.

    Reply: Yes, there is no accepted definition of "partner", but I can see why MPs should declare if they are employing their live in lover, just as they now have to if they are employing their spouse.

  14. Matthew Reynolds
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    On pensions Labour have messed up by taxing pension funds while over complicating state provision and feather bedding their public sector union friends . This has been done to create a large number of people reliant on the state ( along with tax credit created welfare dependency & mass immigration ) so that there are enough left wing inclined voters to keep Labour in office . The dark comic irony is that Labour’s hand is being bitten by those that it feeds . On education just bring in vouchers so that parents can choose whatever schools suit their children meaning that money moves away from red tape & PC LEA’s as a voucher scheme provides a cash incentive for higher standards as producers have to put the service user first . The Citizenship Pension idea would strip out red tape & poverty while not punishing saving and could be funded by tackling welfare dependency , cutting the pointless New Deal and having more private money for railways instead of state subsidy . I do not merely rant about Labour’s faults – I offer a basis for clever Conservative politicians to develop ways to improve things . Surely the Tory Shadow Cabinet are smart enough to put flesh on the bare bones of my policy ideas ? A few vote winning ideas on the things that are of interest to the electorate can get Cameron into Number 10 Downing Street . It is not enough to tell voters how Labour have messed up – we need to show how to fix things like pensions & schools .

  15. John, Wrexham
    Posted April 25, 2008 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    dear john,

    the real issue i have with MPs employing their family is that it can easily make the whole family economically dependent on the family member continuing to be an MP and the result of this is a kind of 'dependency culture' where the career takes precedence over all other considerations.

    the payroll vote is already too numerous in parliament, without backbench MPs becming drones as well.

  16. Bazman
    Posted April 27, 2008 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    The bleating teachers will not be happy until they work 8-12 four days a week with more holidays than they already enjoy. Yes holidays. Most the teachers in my school should have been sacked. Most would not last a day in a real job. German teachers who could not speak German? You could not make it up. Pasty middle class skive. Cushy does not even cover it. (Sentence deleted-ed)
    There are few inconveniences worse than not being able to pay your bills due to low wages. The inconvenience of strikes is often caused by the employers taking the workforce to that action. The greed of many companies knows no limit and to equate low wages to low prices is naive. The cost savings are not passed onto the consumer and all the time the directors and managers are thinking up ways to increase their own pay.
    As soon as the minimum wage was introduced these companies had to think of new ways to pay less to their employees. The obvious way is the attack conditions and benefits like pension schemes. Often the only way to get a better living standard is by threats and changes in 'circumstances'. The working class are not servants.
    Not everyone is supported by the middle class social security system like teachers and all the people who say "I don't believe in strikes" then have little else to say after. Where do you work? Most people don't either, as you loose a lot of money and maybe your job. This is a method of last resort when all others have failed.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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