Writing in The Times recently, Matthew Parish stated that public sector workers will not win the battle over changes to their pensions through striking. The basis for his view was the comments which readers have been posting on the end of online newspaper articles. I had noticed these postings myself. They are not very favourable to public sector workers. Of course people who write on newspaper websites are not necessarily representative of the wider public. However, large numbers of negative comments appear across websites representing a range of political opinions. Even articles on the Guardian website have negative postings. The coalition Government has been pumping out propaganda for ages about gold plated public pensions and it sems to have sunk into the popular consciousness. Contrast this with Greece. Their public sector workers have much more privileges than we do in the U.K. However, the population as a whole blame the Government and the banks for their problems. Please bear in mind that I am basing my observations only on news items. However, from what I can see workers in different sectors do not appear to gave turned on each other.
This lack of popular support in the U.K. is a major obstacle for public sector workers. A second obstacle is fear. Local authorities are likely to lose about a quarter of their workforces over the next four years. People are already experiencing wage freezes and are worried about their jobs. They may feel that poorer pension provision is better than no job. They may also feel that they cannot afford financially to take part in a protracted strike which may end up in defeat. Many other workers are concerned about the effect of public spending cuts on the people they work with and will not want to add to this by withdrawing services.
Then there is the Government's need to look tough. Ed Balls suggested that the Tories were spoiling for a fight and that public sector workers would be falling into a trap by striking. He is possibly right. However, he offers no suggestions for what public sector workers ought to do. Does he think they should just rollover and accept these attacks on their terms and conditions? The Labour party has no answers and no leadership for public sector workers. This is why I don't pay a political levy.
So- Is it hopeless? I would say definately not. However there needs to be new strategies.
Firstly, I feel there needs to be a change in accent to how the arguments are presented to the public. Changes in public sector pensions are just part of a larger attack on public services. This includes cuts in spending on health and social care, moves towards greater privitisation, ill-thought out health reforms and possible reductions in the responsibilities of local authorities. Unions need to make common cause with service users, patients, and the public at large. Protests on pensions needs to be part of a wider protest about cuts in services, protests against job losses etc.
Secondly, I feel that a new type of strike is needed. This would be a strike which does not have any of the chartacteristics of strikes as we know them. The type of strike I am suggesting would have no negative impacts on the public or service users. It would involve no loss of money for workers or any other type of loss. In fact, it would leave them better off. It would not require a ballot. It would not be illegal or break any laws. Anyone could join in-even people who were not in the public service or in the unions.It would however, have a very dramatic effect on the Government and the financial markets. It would result in front page headlines and send the Conservatives and their friends in the city into a spin.
So what is this strike and how would it work?
What I am suggesting is a strike on spending. One day a week every public sector worker in the country should refuse to spend any money other than their bus/train fare to work (or up to £5 worth of petrol), a pint of milk and a sandwich. We could call, this #spendingstrikethursday if we decided to do it on a Thursday. On this day public sector workers would not go shopping for clothes, groceries, books, haircuts, outings to cinema or restaurants, holiday bookings, online spending or anything else which is not essential for that day. Obviously rent, mortgage, utilities and anything on a direct debit would still be paid.
The effect of this spending strike would be a massive blow to the economic figures. The snow last winter was extimated to cost the economy £1.2 billion per day. A soending strike would have a similiar effect. Of course, some spending would just be delayed one day but much spending would not take place at all. For example nobody is going to order two days worth of coffees the next day and a lot of impulse purchases would not happen. Also,many impulse purchases would not take place. For workers the spending strike days allow them to save money to go into a war chest for their family to help get them through the recession or to save for something special. There would also be benfits for people's health from sweets and alcohol not purchased. Over time it may result in people changing lifestyle habits as they see that they can get through the day without buying lots of coffee or chocolate and that they can enjoy saving some money.
However, the biggest impact of the spending strike will be on on the Government and the city. The only thing which the coalition appear to be concerned about is how Britain is regarded by credit ratings agencies and the financial markets. A protracted spending strike of one or two days per week would blow a hole under the water in the Government's hopes for the kind of results which suggest an economic recovery. This would be front page in FT. It would also send Britain's retail and service sector (which makes up a very large part of the economy) into despair. There would be fear on the part of big business that people's habits would change permanaently and they would get less used to spending lots of money and being addicted to consumerism. Workers to wear badges stating that they were takimg part in the spending strike and they could call in at or phone places that they would normally spend money in that day to explain why they had withdrawn their purchasing power.
One possible objection to this plan would be that people might think that public sector workers were sabotaging the economy. However, the defense against this criticism is that public sector workers are just demonstrating what is going to happen when they lose their jobs or enter the retirement in poverty. Another objection is that people will not have the discipline not to spend. However, a spending strike involves a lot less hardship that going on normal strike.
Today's FT carries a story that the Bank of England is considering another round of quantitiative easing. This is a sign of desperation. It shows that Osborne's economic medicine is not working. Economic growth is in the doldrums. #spendingstrikethursday could push economic growth figures over the edge into double dip recession territory. The Government would fear it a lot more than a normal strike. Workers have nothing at all to lose. Anyone who supports public services can join in. It could become part of a wider protest against current Govt policies and form part of a move to unite workers in different sectors and industries against the politics of austerity. After all, an increase in public spending could involve increased investment in public sector construction projects and other measures to get people back into work- so there is something in it for proivate sector workers to join in and demand a change in course by the Government.
If you like this idea and think it has potential then tweet a link to this article, tweet about #spendingstrikethursday,suggest the idea to your union rep, talk about it on Facebook etc.
Please let me know what you think of this idea and leave a comment.