The public sector strikes; a big success or a “damp squib”?

Today has seen one of the biggest industrial actions in living memory.  Members of 29 trade unions (all of whom are public sector workers) voted to strike today, in opposition to proposed government reforms to public sector pensions. The government is still in talks with the unions over the reform plans.

The government are proposing a £2.8bn increase in contribution payments by 2014/2015, pegging the retirement age to the state pension age and switching the way pension contributions are increased every year from the higher RPI rate of inflation to the lower CPI rate.

The government also plan to move staff from final salary schemes to career average schemes. Approximately 2.6 million people from across the range of public sector posts from teachers to immigration officers and care workers were ballotted – with an estimated 750,000 voting yes.  The government say that the reforms are part of the plan to cut public spending, cut the deficit and improve the economy; however the plan faces large opposition as it will cut the amount the size of many people’s pensions.

It was predicted that the strikes would completely disrupt every part of the country and that every part of the public sector would grind to a sudden halt.  The strikes happened in every part of the UK and affected every part of the public sector, although some parts were barely affected.

Despite the predictions beforehand that the strike would cause chaos, it was suggested afterwards that the strikes did not make a big impact on society and were described by David Cameron as a “damp squib”.

The strikes were seen as possibly the biggest strike action since 1926 and it was estimated that the strike could involve 2.6m workers and it would cost up to £500m.  However, when the strikes actually happened they were on a much smaller scale and didn’t disrupt society as much as predicted.  The only major impact was due to the closure of some state schools.  62% of UK state schools were closed due to strikes which is a much smaller amount than expected.  It is also worth noting that if a school closed due to industrial action it did not necessarily mean that the majority of employees at that school were on strike. Thousands of workers in the education sector were forced to take the day off work because of their colleague’s decision to strike.

Other parts of the public sector were largely unaffected.  One place which was expected to be hit the hardest was the UK border points.  Queues were expected to be much larger than normal and the possible security threat caused by strike action was labelled as dangerous and irresponsible by many critics.

Although the impact on the borders was estimated to be very large, there were no recorded disruptions, queues were reported to be smaller than on an average day and a number of seizures had also occurred which included 1.5kg of cocaine found at Stansted.  In the NHS there were only 79,000 reported absences which was roughly 14.5% of the total workforce.  The average absence percentage (due to sickness) in the NHS is roughly 5% and this shows that the impact of the strike on the NHS was very minimal.

When looking at the numerical data concerning the strikes it does seem to uphold the view that the strikes had little impact and were considered as a failure.  The only part of the public sector which was hit hard was education as the closure of more than half of all state schools did disrupt the lives of many parents and children.  However the rest of the public sector seemed to be relatively unaffected.

The Conservative Party have condemned the strikes and David Cameron argued at Prime Minister’s Questions today that the strikes failed to “make an impact” and that they were “damaging and irresponsible”.  Cameron also criticised the Unions for striking while negotiations between the Unions and government were still ongoing.  Ed Milliband replied by arguing that the coalition must accept responsibility for the industrial action and said that the main reason for the strikes was that many people thought that the government were not listening to them.

A spokesperson for the Trades Union Congress responded to government claims of a low turnout and minimal impact, stating “the government is clutching at straws. The real question remains, how did this government provoke so many ordinary, decent people to go on strike for the first time in their lives?”

The public sector workers have had a mixture of support and criticism concerning the industrial action today.  Many people believe that the workers are right to complain about the plans to cut their pension contributions.  However many people believe that public sector workers are, on the whole, much better off than private sector workers and self employed people, especially as private sector workers are much less likely to have employer contributions to their pensions.  The unions and workers have been criticised as they have disrupted the entire country and there are many people who are worse off than the public sector workers.

The strikes today may not have been as significant as expected but they still had a large impact and sent a message to the government.  Today’s strikes may also be the first of many over the next couple of months.  Like the student and anti-capitalism protests of the last 18 months, industrial action is one of the most effective ways of getting the government to listen to what the people want.

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Posted on November 30, 2011, in Comment, General, Looking Forward, Parliamentary Business and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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