What’s wrong with the unions?

June 29, 2011

Across the UK tomorrow, thousands of people will be united in complaining about strikes. Even the ferverently liberal Twitter (originally created as a device to complain in no more than 140 characters – early beta editions were actually originally called Complainr) will be filled with the angry mutterings of people who can’t get on their chosen flight or can’t send their children to school. And, a vast majority of these people won’t be froth-mouthed Daily Mail readers.

I can understand that if you read the Daily Mail (or similar) then you’ll have known for years that Len McCluskey has a bust of Lenin on his desk which he genuflects to each morning, or that Brendan Barber spends his million pound salary on teams of immigrants to sit in his office gently humming The Red Flag as he goes about his days work, but that isn’t really what I’m going on about here. I’m talking about ordinary people (and yet trying not to echo that over-used phrase of politicians, ‘hard-working families’ – coupled with ‘our brave soldiers’, this would make a lethal election TV debate drinking game) with generally reasonable views, who nonetheless freak the hell out every time a section of the public sector goes on strike. Cries of “selfishness” will fill the air, along with dark mutterings about “gold plated pensions” and the “public sector gravy train”.

All of which seems to me to be one massive contradition. Surely the very nature of a strike is to make people appreciate what the public sector actually does for them. The workers who make the tube run on time, who provide a good education for your children every other day of the year – this is the “public sector gravy train” that you’re complaining about. And generally, for lower equivelent wages than the private sector would pay, they do a very good job. Why are people complaining? Because something they’ve previously taken for granted has disappeared. For a day.

One statistic that’s often waved about or shrieked about in headlines is that public sector workers earn a lot more on average than they did twenty five years ago. When you look at the figures, there’s no denying that this is the case. But when you look at the causes, things are very different. The reason for this is very simple – there are less public sector workers now than there were twenty five years ago (cheers Maggie!). And the ones that have disappeared are generally the lower paid workers – the cleaners, the telephone workers, a lot of postmen. Who’s left? Teachers, nurses, council employees. Of course they’re earning more on average – that’s what happens when you privatise all the lower paid roles. It’s a simple calculation, but it makes for a hell of a public sector bashing headline when you leave out the workings.

One thing the media has increasingly succeeded in is demonising the trade unions. I’ve never understood why. A group of workers banding together, and achieving (usually through negotiation, and very rarely through strikes) fair conditions. And this is something that politicians aren’t going to do by themselves. Think about it – we didn’t even have a minumum wage until 1997. They’re not (as a whole) communists – they’re representing the interests of their members in a largely democratic manner, they’ve got a long and (generally) honorable record of representing workers treated badly by their employers, they provide a voice for the (often) weak and powerless, and yet they’re painted by the press as the avenging ghost of Joseph Stalin.

Whatever your views on the ‘deficit’ may be, or the need to make ‘savings’, take another look at what the public sector actually does before you moan about the minor inconveniences they’ve caused in your day. Bravo, Comrades, bravo!

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