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


Other than inconveniencing us all, the big strike is pointless and unjustified

Strikes. What are they good for?

Strikes. What are they good for?

On Wednesday, November 30, more than two million public sector workers are planning to go out on strike.

Teachers, civil servants, NHS and council workers will be involved in the largest single day of industrial action since the Winter of Discontent in 1979.

The strike, co-ordinated by the TUC, will disrupt hospitals, schools, courts, government offices, job centres, driving tests, public transport and council services.

Unions argue that the Government’s reforms to pensions will lead to their members paying in more, working longer and receiving less when they retire.

I don’t doubt for a minute that they are right.

However, even taking the proposed changes into consideration, they will still end up enjoying a far more comfortable retirement than most workers in the private sector.

In my view, next week’s industrial action is entirely unjustified and, what’s worse, it runs the risk of further damaging our already fragile economy.

I think the truth is that at this time of great anxiety there is no real appetite for this strike anyway.

This has been evidenced by the relatively small numbers of union members who bothered to vote – around a quarter to a third of those actually polled.

Nevertheless, as is the way with unions, all members will be expected to toe the line and miss out on a day’s pay to show solidarity with some bloke from IT who they can’t actually stand because he’s is off sick more than he’s actually in work.

After all, it’s about us working classes standing together against those greedy fat cat bosses/bankers/millionaires in the Government (insert as applicable), isn’t it?

Rubbish. If those on strike expect me to toot my car horn in support of them they are in for a long wait.

Although I suspect I’ll do well to find many actual pickets or marchers because strikes aren’t like they used to be.

Gone are the days of people warming their hands over coal braziers and relying on food parcels.

I reckon The Sentinel’s photographers will have to be out pretty early to catch a handful of pickets on November 30 before they disappear off to watch Jeremy Kyle or to enjoy a bonus Zumba lesson.

The fact is that the industrial action which will disrupt the lives of so many will accomplish nothing as the same concessions which are currently on the table – worth an estimated £50 billion – will remain.

They won’t alter because there’s no more money to be had.

Yes, it is grossly unfair that people are having the terms of their employment fiddled about with.

However, this has been happening in the private sector for a lot longer which is why there will be precious little sympathy from those who don’t have the luxury of working in a heavily-unionised environment.

Ministers insist that changes need to be made to public sector pensions to ensure they are sustainable for the future.

The fact is, we are all living longer and drawing our pensions for longer – including all of those public sector workers who, until recently, were retiring in their early to mid-fifties on whacking great pensions.

We can blame the banks, the city boys, hedge fund traders, ordinary people who run up enormous credit card bills or various governments – whoever we want really – for the current global economic crisis. The fact is, we are where we are and it looks like its going to get a damn sight worse before it gets better.

What was instructive to me is that even the Labour leader had no stomach for industrial action earlier this year because even he recognises we are in uncharted territory.

Look around. The Euro is on its knees and no two economists can agree on how to save it or resuscitate the UK economy.

Thus, in my opinion, now certainly isn’t the time for large-scale industrial action. Surely it has to do more harm than good.

Other than public sector workers inconveniencing the public and annoying their non-union colleagues, I just can’t see the point of the strike on November 30.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Qualifications don’t always make for great employees

If, like me, you judge people by their actions rather than the letters after their name, then the chances are you won’t approve of the suggestions made in a key new study into policing.
The Windsor report, an independent review into the pay and working conditions of police staff, has recommended introducing a pre-entry qualification for anyone wanting to become a member of Her Majesty’s Constabulary.
If adopted, the idea would necessitate any potential copper gaining a level four qualification – that’s one stage higher than A-levels and the equivalent of a certificate of higher education.
Now, I’m all for the police service employing the best and brightest but I can’t help but think that this de-humanising approach to recruitment is rather short-sighted.
Anyone in a job will tell you that within their organisation there are some well-qualified people who, frankly, couldn’t be trusted to run a bath.
Worse, some of these people have risen to the dizzy heights of managing others – despite a lack of common sense or any people skills.
I’m afraid it is the price that has to be paid when employers are hoodwinked by qualifications and a decent interview technique.
You see, academic achievement is all well and good but that doesn’t necessarily translate to brilliance in the workplace.
For example, the best journalist I ever worked with had a City & Guilds qualification in woodwork.
He had what we writers term ‘a lovely turn of phrase’ and could charm anyone he met – an invaluable skill for any hack.
By contrast I have met reporters who went to the best universities in the land but who have the social skills of a gnat and who appear to write with a trowel.
Oh, and for the record, graduating from university with a media studies degree doesn’t mean you can write flawless copy or that the Pulitzer Prize suddenly beckons.
When I left school back in 1990 only the cream of the crop from each school went on to study A-levels. Even fewer then progressed to a university education. These days degrees are 10 a penny and pretty much a pre-requisite for anyone wanting to work in my profession.
Theoretically, this seismic shift in educational attainment should mean that employers are able to cherry pick the best candidates for any vacancy. If only things were that simple.
The truth is that being good at your job has a lot more to do with attitude and application than any piece of paper – no matter how good your grades are.
Police offers will be the first to say that interpersonal skills are the key weapon in any copper’s arsenal. I suspect a level four qualification in such things is rare.
Surely training and up-skilling within the police service is the way in which talent and potential should be harnessed – allowing the best brains to rise to the top.
What about courage, integrity and a sense of public duty? You won’t find these on any college or university course but one would like to think that most coppers possess such personality traits.
Depriving people with limited academic ability but bags of potential in other areas of a career in the police seems absurd.
We will always need community-minded, kind-hearted beat bobbies and PCSOs just as much as we need brilliant detectives.
Now imagine if a similar criteria was used to recruit for our Armed Forces.
I dread to think of how many good soldiers, sailors and airmen and women would be prevented from donning a uniform.
Apart from anything else, the simple cost of higher education is becoming a serious barrier to many people.
It is vital that we tread that fine line between promoting aspiration and rewarding achievement while, at the same time, not excluding the less academically-gifted who may still have so much to offer our public sector.

We shouldn’t waste taxpayers’ money on union officials

There will be an awful lot of people scratching their heads at the news that taxpayers’ money is being used to fund the posts of union officials at local councils.
I have to say I’m one of them.
Yesterday The Sentinel revealed that almost £800,000 of your money was being spent employing people to serve the thousands of union members working for local authorities in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.
In their defence, the unions say they do make a contribution towards the cost of employing these glorified nannies.
They also argue that due to the current austerity measures and waves of redundancies these officials are needed more than ever.
However, I suspect there are many people working in the private sector who will be rolling their eyes at this largesse.
Frankly, I object to this waste of public money for a number of reasons.
Firstly, when you pay your council tax you expect it to fund bin collections, schools, street lighting and the like.
I’m pretty sure you don’t expect it to be used to fund the posts of people who are providing no public service whatsoever.
Secondly, at a time when frontline services are being cut, swimming pools closed and children’s centres placed under threat, how can anyone possibly justify spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on union officials?
If these posts are so vital to union members then I would suggest that the unions themselves should be funding them in their entirety.
Thirdly, I also think these roles make something of a mockery of the fact that our councils all have human resources staff.
Surely the helpful folk in these departments do a very similar job to dozens of hand-holding union officials.
For those of us operating in a non-unionised environment, where you either sink and swim based on your own ability, this kind of babysitting in the workplace is an alien concept.
Is it any wonder that there is such an ‘us and them’ divide between the private and public sectors?
Strike action – also known as a royal pain in the backside – is something that many of us will never have the luxury of inflicting on other people.
The fact is that under the coalition Government, the public sector is undergoing a radical overhaul.
This has resulted in cutbacks, job losses and great hardship for hundreds of thousands of people.
The only surprise here is that anyone is surprised that it is happening.
We need to appreciate that until 12 months ago the public sector had been largely shielded from the global economic crisis.
Talk to many private sector employees and they will tell you that in recent years they have been through several rounds of redundancies and suffered pay freezes, pay cuts and changes to the terms of their pensions as their employers have attempted to survive in this most challenging of climates.
Only now is the bloated public sector being exposed to the kind of rigorous rationalisation that many of us have experienced for five years or more.
So forgive me if I don’t down tools and come out in support of the public sector workers taking industrial action at present.
You see, it is very easy for people, particularly in an area like Stoke-on-Trent, to default to the view that those Tory toffs are again attacking the poor working class, Labour-voting public sector workers.
They would be wrong.
Indeed, it is very instructive that Labour leader Ed Miliband has been less that fulsome in his support for the industrial action by public sector workers which wrought havoc across the country last week.
Like all other sections of our economy, the public sector cannot and should not be immune to the harsh economic realities of 2011.
Local councils – partly because they are so heavily-unionised – are from top to bottom extremely inefficient and overly-bureaucratic. Just ask the people who work there.
In addition, council employees are, more often than not, completely unaccountable to the public they claim to serve because they are ‘protected’ by their unions.
I say we should not be throwing your money at union officials whose posts simply reinforce these unfortunate truths.
Do you believe taxpayers’ money should be spent by councils on employing union representatives?