Public sector strikes are very old politics

Today there will be a strike of some public sector workers over cuts in redundancy payments. I don’t expect the government to suddenly give in owing to industrial action. The strikers might be disappointed at how little impact there is from their inaction. I can understand employees’ frustration at unilateral changes to their terms and conditions. They are paying the price of their employer’s failure to run the public accounts sensibly and to motivate and lead staff professionally to get better results.

It is the culmination of bad handling of recruitment, training, retention and dismissal in Labour’s public sector. The strike reflects badly on both sides. A good employer should not need to make too many employees redundant, because he would not have over recruited in the first place. Redundancies can be an unhappy necessity in a business where demand suddenly collapses, often owing to government financial and economic mismangement of the economy. It should not be common in the public sector, where traditionally spending goes up every year regardless of economic performance. This year again spending will rise.

It demonstrates that the public sector still does not get how grave the national financial situation is. The government needs to sit down with representatives of all its staff and hammer out how the total pay bill is going to be cut. Will it be done by work sharing, by recruitment bans, by pay freezes, by selective closures and redundancies in non front line services, or some combination of all these? After years of overexpansion of numbers and pay we need something new to the public sector – a fall in the total pay bill. Industry has had to do this on a big scale in the recession, and has done so without large strikes and with substantial co-operation between managers and employees. When will the public sector wake up to what it needs to do?

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16 Comments

  1. Norman
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Heard a union representative on the radio regarding this this morning. You are correct that they do not get how serious it is. When questioned by the presenter about the validity of the strike he replied that the public sector should not pay for the private sectors recession. When further questioned about the gap between private and public sector T&C’s and pensions he took the line that when public sector employees accept a position that the T&C’s were set and they should never change for the worse. In private sector this attitude would make companies go bankrupt in their droves. They may yet manage to do the same to our country, aided and abetted by Labour.

    The union representative really could not accept that belts need to be tightened or that the public finances have been grossly mismanaged for 13 years.

    With this kind of attitude I don’t envy the next government their task, no wonder no one wants to talk about it. Unfortunately sweeping it under the carpet won’t make it go away. There was a chap from CBI on before the union rep and it was chalk and cheese the difference between the two standpoints. Almost like the good old days of Tory vs Labour.

  2. Tony Dowling
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Public sector cuts are even older politics!!!

  3. Brian Tomkinson
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    This government will do nothing overtly to discourage their client state from voting for them. They are dependent upon the unions for their very existence and will expect and support them to create chaos for any Conservative government. The Conservatives need to make it clear in their manifesto that the public budget deficit will be reduced and this will be done by reducing spending, not by increasing taxation. They also need to clearly spell out the dangers to the prospects for growth by failing to reduce the deficit or by increasing taxation as Labour would prefer.

  4. English Pensioner
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Seems odd to strike about something that will never happen while a Labour government is in power. Presumably they know it will be useless if the Tories get elected, so they are taking pre-emptive action. Don't see what difference this will make.

  5. Chris lancashire
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    The public sector unions are playing a dangerous game – no one will notice they are on strike.

  6. John Bowman
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Yes, the old politics of the 70s, when… there was a Labour regime in charge. Coincidence brothers?

  7. Javelin
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Win or lose, after the election the unions will have Labour in their hand because the unions could bankrupt Labour from the cost of paying for the election. However, it would be nice to see the unions bankrupt themselves supporting Labour to an election defeat as well.

    Labour and the Unions are like old Soviet Union – where the socialist model bankrupted itself. This needs to be writ large in the public's mind. New Labour needs to be strung up in a gibbet with the words Boom and Bankruptcy under them. All and any bankruptcy proceedings need to be dragged out through the courts; very slowly and very publically. Then laws need to be put in place so this spend and spulrge cannot happen again. We need to legislate broadly and deeply against free spending socialist political models so its almost impossible to change them back. The Conservatives should also change also many, many laws to stop funding of the unions like Labour has done.

    Also, it would be nice to know how minimum public sector redundancy costs stack up against minimum private sector redundancy costs. Is this yet another generous perk the public sector has been afforded?

  8. Y Rhyfelwr Dewr
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    So the civil servants will all stop working. Will anyone notice, I wonder?

  9. Ian Jones
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    The unions want to keep spending where it is and raise taxes to cover it, this has been the plan by Brown for the last 10 years.

    If they strike over cutting massively generous redundancy terms to only over generous then what will they do when their pensions are slashed and pay cut?

    privatise as much as possible. Those with talent will do well, the rest will get the pay they deserve.

  10. ManicBeancounter
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    There was a time when the unions represented the bottom of society. Those who were on the lowest pay, worked the longest hours in the unsafest conditions. The civil servants that will "lose" will still retain a potential redundancy package that is far in excess of the majority. The biggest losers will be the higher paid as well. That coupled with a superb pensions package, above average salary and good job security.

    This is a very minor reduction in the huge commitments that the government has acquired. If they are not unwound, it will be at the expense of our children's future prosperity and at the expense at future help for the needy.

    It may cause some grievance to lose some of the gold-plating off the pay packages, but the unions should help their members get a sense of proportion, not nuture discontent.

  11. JimF
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    The union leader on Today did however have a point that if bankers' employment contracts can't be torn up when it comes to bonus time, then why can his public sector workers'? Difficult to counter that, isn't it?

  12. Smolt
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    PCS is the most left-wing of the civil service unions. The hidden agenda is that if there are fewer of its members employed, the union of course has fewer members full stop. Its revenues diminish; it and its leadership then have less influence. (A mischievous person could make an analogy with Westminster MPs bemoaning the loss of power to Brussels).

    See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Serwotka

    However disagreeable that gentleman's views, I can testify that as a scientific civil servant qualified at postgraduate level, with almost 18 years' experience, including two overseas secondments, and able to speak two foreign languages, I was only slightly exceeding GBP 30k gross a year. For my 18th year of service, my gross financial reward was about 800 pounds before tax. Many of Serwotka's members are less qualified than me, and much worse paid. It is not surprising that there is a perception problem with bankers' bonuses.

    Incidentally, there ARE civil servants who care about productivity gains! The Executive Agencies are often very commercially minded.

    There are diplomats with 20 yrs service, sometimes putting their lives on the line for the UK, who are only just grossing £30k.

    It would be worth checking the average time that the famous "gold-plated" civil service pension is actually drawn after retirement. I believe it's only about TWO AND A HALF YEARS. A parliamentary question (PQ) to the Paymaster General may reveal all.

    The corollary then: are the working conditions too awful, or is a poor calibre of staff being recruited? A Conservative government would still have a Duty of Care to its employees and should set out to establish the facts. It would be doing everyone a service.

    Faced with a lack of career development strategy for scientific staff – despite about £200k of taxpayers' money having been spent on seconding me overseas, twice – I applied successfully for voluntary redundancy. (Another interesting PQ to ask: how many civil service redundancies since 1997, and 2007, and at what frightening cost to the taxpayer?)

    Thanks to the mobility afforded by the EU, I now work where the climate is warmer and less foggy. And I think the British civil service's ways of working are some way AHEAD of its counterpart in this major Continental country.

    If you have faced redundancy and have private sector experience, give the civil service a go. Parts of it would really benefit from outside experience. It might even be a good option for ex-Forces people at Major (= Higher Exec Officer) rank and above. Many civil servants would appreciate seeing leadership rather than management.

  13. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted March 9, 2010 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    There is always the Reagan option. When air traffic controllers went on strike, he calmly announced that they were in breach of contract and had therefore dismissed themselves.

    The cost of public sector employment will need to be reduced by at least 20% during the next parliament. Level for level, public sector salaries are about 7% higher than their private sector equivalents, and their pension rights are far greater. If we address these things, as well as the things listed by John Redwood, we might just about get there.

  14. Large Plastic Storag
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the awesome work Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  15. John Ward
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    As a Tory activist for Charlie Elphicke in Dover, you may be a tad bemused that I am also a strong supporter of my PCS Union. I do however believe that Unions should be barred from any Political affiliation and just get on with what they are essentially there for – protecting the rights and resolving the grievences of their members.
    In reply to several comments regarding the strike by PCS members (I am an Officer of the UKBA by the way) we are protesting about the cut in our redundancy terms. I am seriously hacked off about the way in which we are portrayed, the archytypal bowler hatted, pinstripe festooned City type who does next to nothing for a large salary and a generous pension. I work 12 hours a day in appalling conditions doing a distasteful and often dangerous job trying to counter International drug/weapons/cigarettes/alcohol/people smuggling, dealing with some of the most vicious characters of the criminal fraternity. And my reward under Labour? Pay Cuts and/or freezes, a Draconian, over bloated Senior Management, ridiculous politically correct working procedures, and now the threat of redundancy. Thanks Gordon.

  16. wow gold
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    There is obviously a lot to know about this.

  • About John Redwood


    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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