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Thursday, 10 July 2014

Why it is Right to Support Public Sector Strikes

As a member of the NUT I have been on strike today and I am proud of the fact. Of course the television news tonight and the newspapers tomorrow will be awash with coalition politicians condemning the strikes and the chief criticism will be that they cause inconvenience to the public. In addition the strikes will be described as 'the unions' trying to bully the government and public sector workers thinking that they deserve more than 'the rest of us'. Hardworking teachers, firefighters, civil servants and support staff will all be attacked. On another day it will be nurses and NHS staff. Even the police, who are not allowed to strike, are now being denigrated by politicians such as Theresa May who want us to believe that they don't deserve decent pensions either.
Its high time that someone took a critical look at these critics of the unions for a change. For a start, 'the unions' are not a bunch of grim and grey faceless conglomerates that represent nobody. Trade Unions exist because people choose to join them to represent their interests as employees and they cannot go on strike without holding a ballot of members first. They are simply collectives of people, and by that I mean working people rather than wealthy employees or multinational corporations which seldom attract the same bile from the politicians and media. They are organised on democratic lines in that if more people vote against strike action than for it then the strike cannot happen. That is the law. The first ever major sustained and successful Trade Union strike in England was the 1888 matchgirls strike at the Bryant & May match factory in London. The dispute was over the fact that the girls were made to breathe in sulphur fumes all day with no safety masks and were getting cancer of the jaw as a result. At the time the strike was condemned as a bully boy tactic by politicians who presumably saw no problem with teenage girls getting facial cancer as a direct result of workplace conditions. Earlier in the 1830s, when unions were 'illegal combinations', the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to forced labour camps in Australia for the heinous crime of daring to swear an oath of loyalty to each other. Odd that the same punishment was not meted out to employers guilds.

As regards the public sector strikes of today, although they will inevitably cause temporary inconvenience to some members of the public, the last thing that they are is directed against that public.They are actually for the public. For example most parents want their children to be educated by dedicated, well-qualified teachers who are energetic and enthusiastic. I've yet to meet a parent who wants their child to be educated in the cheapest way possible by somebody under qualified. Well if you want the best then you have to pay for it, its as simple as that. Isn't it strange how whenever bankers' bonuses are attacked, the retort is always, "oh well if we don't pay them their £100,000 bonuses then the best of them will just go and work elsewhere", when the same principle never seems to be applied to teachers, firefighters or nurses. The reason for this is that the politicians couldn't care less whether or not the public get bog standard public services so long as the high earners get their tax breaks. For example the people who can afford to attend Mr Cameron's infamous £200,000 a head lobbying 'dinner parties'.

Many people who work for the private sector are struggling at the moment with low pay, risible pension provision, zero-hours contracts and bullying managers. The politicians want these people to despise public sector workers as a gilded elite as it creates a divide and rule schism. Yet this is not an argument against the worth of Trade Unions but a massive argument for them, since a reason that millions of private sector workers are in such grim terms of employment is the de-unionised nature of their jobs. As atomised individuals they are powerless against their employers. These private sector workers still need teachers to teach their children, firefighters to come and put out their house fires and an NHS that they don't have to pay massive fees or insurance premiums to use. They deserve the best, not a collection of run down public services staffed by cheap, under-qualified staff who leave after two months.

The coalition government attack public sector strikes for one reason only and that is because they disagree with the whole idea of a public sector and certainly disagree with services funded by general taxation. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives believe that as much as possible should be privatised in order to reduce taxes. Privatisation means that the public will have to pay directly for those services or, as in the case of student loans, rack up mortgage-like debts. This shifts the burden of funding from the highest earners to the middle earners who suddenly find a new raft of bills coming their way. If anyone believes that private services are always cheaper and better run than the public sector then I have only one thing to say: private care homes for the elderly.

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