It’s not just public sector workers who’ve been suffering

Union members on strike in Stoke.

Union members on strike in Stoke.

I was unfollowed on Twitter yesterday by someone who didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t throwing my weight 100 per cent behind the strike action taken by around one million public sector workers.

For the lady in question it was really simple. She wrote: “Either you support the public sector workers or you don’t. The inconvenience of the strike shouldn’t change that.”

I would agree with her if it was only that simple.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands of firefighters, teachers and civil servants exercised their democratic right to take industrial action.

The GMB, FBU, Unison and Unite unions asked their members to go on strike for 24 hours in a dispute over pay and conditions.

Throughout the Coalition Government’s term of office, the public sector workers’ unions have complained bitterly about constant attacks on their members.

They rightly point out that there have been many job losses and they also argue the Tory-led Government has eroded the terms and conditions of employees across the public sector – in terms of pay, pensions and their day-to-day working lives.

For its part, the Government asserts that under several Labour administrations the public sector became bloated and unwieldy and argues that, during a time of great financial uncertainty, tough action was, and still is, required to stabilise the UK economy.

This, they say, includes making the public sector more efficient.

Both sides would have you believe they have the moral high ground.

It, of course, suits the Government for private sector workers, many of whom were inconvenienced by yesterday’s strike, to feel resentful towards public sector employees – creating an ‘us and them’ situation.

The unions would have us believe this is a ‘power to the people’ scenario, that they are protecting the lowest-paid and most vulnerable in society, and that we must all stand together against those nasty millionaire Tories – creating an ‘us and them situation’.

In all honesty, I sit somewhere in the middle. It worries me hugely the way the Government has gone about butchering budgets for local authorities and tinkering with the NHS, education and the way in which our emergency services and Armed Forces operate.

I feel like the cuts are too deep and it concerns me that morale among public sector employees affected must have been severely dented. To my mind soldiers, emergency services personnel, teachers, health workers and local authority staff deserve to be treated with more respect when changes are made to their working lives.

By the same token it is worth pointing out that public sector workers are not alone in their suffering during this time of continuing austerity.

Many in the private sector have lost their jobs, had their pay cut or have endured pay freezes for several years. Many of these work in non-unionised workplaces and have no recourse to industrial action and don’t want to rock the boat for fear of being targeted for redundancy.

There are also those within the private sector who feel, perhaps with some justification, envious of public sector workers’ pensions, the age at which many retire and the fact that some public sector workers accrue more holidays after years of service than is the norm in the private sector.

Even within the public sector itself there is jealousy and resentment.

I know plenty of council workers who will tell you they think civil servants have an easy life and that their terms and conditions are far superior. And what about those workers within the public sector itself who don’t agree with the strike but are forced to go along with it anyway?

Those such as a teacher I spoke to on Wednesday who feels she is well paid for the job she does, appreciates the amount of holiday time she spends with her children, and didn’t want to lose pay when she has work to do.

Finance experts and Government ministers can talk up the recovery all they like but isn’t the truth of the matter that the vast majority of us – in both the private and public sectors – have been hit hard in recent years by the economic downturn and while we can arguably see the end of the tunnel we haven’t emerged out of the other end just yet?

Whether or not you support yesterday’s industrial action, please don’t forget that there are two sides to every argument.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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