Monday, 28 November 2011

Media and government attacks will get shriller as November 30 looms - here (hopefully) is some sense.

As the day of the biggest strike in recent history looms we can expect well-heeled government ministers like Francis Maude and Danny Alexander to ramp up the levels of hysteria, media commentators to attack the ‘unfairness’ of ‘gold-plated’ public pensions (from the right) or bemoan the ‘choice of target’ for the strikes (from the centre-left) and politicians to attack each other over tactics. In such a febrile atmosphere, it is handy to hold onto a few counters to the main myths peddled by such people.
Here are some. Public pensions are affordable now, and are likely to become more so in the future. Who says so? Not the PCS or other ‘militant TU leaders’ but the Assistant Editor of that comfortable read for Tory ministers, the Daily Telegraph! Yes Jeremy Warner, back in March pointed out that the Hutton report had identified that these pensions have peaked at 1.8% of GDP currently, and even without his ‘reforms’ will now decline steadily in cost. (interestingly, while he repeats the ‘crowding out’ myth, he also argues for better pensions in the private sector) - there is something plainly unsatisfactory about "race to the bottom" policy, or levelling public sector pensions down to the disgracefully low standards that rule in the private sector.’
Of course, it is also the case that public sector pensions support the private sector. Something that polemicists on the other side tend to overlook as they scream about paying for ‘gold-plated’ bureaucrats’ pensions . As well as fair pensions meaning that pensioners can buy goods and services from the private sector, public pension funds are huge investors in private industry. And, as they are successfully and sustainably funded - UNISON estimates that £300m more is going into the Scottish LGPS before investment income, than is being paid out in pensions - that means, as Scottish Secretary, Mike Kirby says Current attacks on both pensions and on public sector employment will be bad for the schemes - and in the long run bad for the economy. The UK Government won’t be putting any of the money they raise or save from stealing from pensions into the schemes - just using it to pay back debt run up to bail out their friends the bankers’.

The strikes are understood and generally supported by the public. Despite the constant battering of government and media attacks, the BBC is today reporting that 61% in an opinion poll they ran believe public service workers are justified in going on strike over the issue. That backs up previous straw polls run after the large UNISON vote to strike. These polls were run in the rabidly anti-union Daily Star, whose readers out-polled the liberal Guardian in support of strikers, and back to our old favourite - the Daily Telegraph. (Might have to think about changing my reading!).
Of course, many of those polled will be strikers or colleagues or family or friends themselves. The voting turn-out in the union ballots is phenomenally good, despite what Francis Maude and others say. Many of the MPs who lead the attacks on trade union democracy a) would give their eye teeth to have levels of support like these and b) are themselves directly responsible for the difficulty in getting improved turnouts in union ballots. Using on-line technology would have helped, (as indeed would workplace ballots), and at least one of those methods has been approved in principle, but not yet put into law. Even so, the ballots from the 30 unions, across many thousands of employers (UNISON itself balloted members in nearly 9,500 employers) show a huge consistency and massive level of support. The best summary is on the impressive ‘Pensions Justice’ site.
The level of support and the breadth of union coverage on this dispute also answers some of the (deliberately?) misinformed attacks by some ‘sympathetic’ commentators that pensions is the ‘wrong issue’. That unions should all co-ordinate a strike over ‘cuts’. Would that they could!! Failing to understand the realities of ‘Trade disputes’ in legislation despite having had them explained, could be put down to deliberate disinformation, more likely it indicates a deep-seated prejudice that is proving immune to reason.
Finally, the (somewhat cheesey, but well-intentioned) supporters single continues to build support. Watch and buy it here. The AFL/CIO (after Wisconsin) went for Tom Morello’s ‘Union Town’!!
See you on the picket line!!

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