UK: Posh boy PM either too dumb to “get” the 2 million strike’s feminist message or needs glasses Print E-mail

 London ~ Friday November 25 2011, page 20

Pensions action will be a women's strike, says union

Unison says 30 November strike will be dominated by females and undermine Conservative party efforts to reconnect with women voters

Dan Milmo, Hélène Mulholland, Polly Curtis and Heather Stewart

Dave Prentis, of Unison, said women make up nearly two-thirds of the workforce affected by the pensions reforms. (Martin Argles for the Guardian)

Next Wednesday's action over pension changes will be a "women's strike", according to the leader of the largest public sector union, as a row broke out over a government claim that the walkout would cost the economy £500m and trigger job losses.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said that the strike by up to 2.6 million workers, in jobs ranging from teachers to immigration officers, would be dominated by women participants, and its impact would worsen the Conservative party's problem with female voters.

In an effort to shift public opinion against the strike and dissuade workers from walking out, ministers claimed the economy would lose £500m and an unspecified number of jobs would be axed, because working parents would be forced into emergency childcare by school closures – an estimate dismissed by one respected thinktank as "economic nonsense".

In an interview with the Guardian, Prentis (pictured) said attempts to portray unions as "old-fashioned" monoliths would be exposed as inaccurate. Unison has 1 million female members, and union leaders believe that women make up nearly two-thirds of the workforce affected by the pension changes that have triggered Wednesday's day of action.

"This will be a women's strike," said Prentis. "It is women who voted for this. We have a million female members, and it is their decision; they wanted to take this action."

Prentis, who also chairs the TUC's public sector group, said the strike would not conform to critics' allegations of dinosaur behaviour.

"The rightwing press brand this as an old-fashioned trade union dispute, linking it to strikes in the past. But this is different. People who provide our local government services, our health services, people who care for us, are saying they can't take it any more. And 75% of these workers are women."

With reports of internal Tory polling showing women in skilled manual jobs deserting the party, Prentis said the strikes would poison the coalition's rapport with female voters. "I think the government is beginning to realise that the overwhelming majority of people taking action will be women. They are worried about women moving away from the coalition."

The TUC is reluctant to discuss further action after 30 November, although some doubt that a deal over pensions can be reached by the end of December. But the three largest unions – Unite, Unison and the GMB – talk openly of a long-running campaign of walkouts and protests.

Prentis declined to rule out more strikes if talks failed. "Members did not just vote for action on 30 November. They have voted for action full stop. If our members believe they want to take further industrial action if an offer from the government is not good enough, then we're in a position to take that action."

Unison balloted 1.1 million members in local government and the health service, including nurses, school lunchtime supervisors, nurses and physiotherapists. And Prentis warned that cover on local government and health services would be kept to a minimum: "People will be inconvenienced. To think that we can take strike action and not inconvenience people, that would not make sense."

With less than a week to go before the biggest walkout in decades, the ministers in charge of pension negotiations, Francis Maude and Danny Alexander, said it would impose a "significant hit to the economy at a very challenging time" as they urged staff to go to defy their unions and turn up to work. Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said he might take his daughter into work with him due to school closures.

The Treasury said the walkout would curb output in public and private sectors, although the figures do allow for savings from workers losing a day's pay.

A Treasury spokesman said: "The Treasury has a number of economists and they have calculated this. This is a reasonable worst-case scenario. We don't know what the impact of the strikes will be."

Maude, the minister for the Cabinet Office, said that redundancies were likely, because there was a correlation between economic output and loss of employment – though he was unable to give a figure. "Exactly what that relationship is is very hard to anticipate; but if we lose a big chunk of output, it's hard to see how that does not translate into fewer jobs."

According to the government, the biggest impact will be thousands of school closures, forcing parents to work from home, make childcare arrangements, or take their children to the office. Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, dismissed Maude's claim as "economic nonsense", saying "there's no direct reason why a strike will translate into job losses". "Clearly, a prolonged period of industrial action which had a medium-term damaging effect on the economy would be different."

Jon Trickett, the shadow cabinet minister, expressed fear that Treasury civil servants were being used to feed Conservative propaganda: "I really think Maude needs a lesson in maths … you have to take the pluses and the minuses to calculate the real cost of something like this."

Pension scheme
Warning over mass exodus

Local government employers and unions agree on one thing: government plans to charge higher monthly pension contributions at a time of wage freezes and high inflation could prompt an exodus from the local government pension scheme.

The GMB believes the number could be as high as 40%. A mass opt-out would wreck the long-term health of the fund.

Decades of staff and employer contributions combined with investments in stocks and bonds have built the largest funded pension scheme in the UK and fourth largest in the world at around £150bn.

However, the assets in the fund are unable to meet its long-term commitment to pay pensions. A recent study found it was only able to meet 75% of payments over the next 40 to 50 years.

Income from investments and contributions currently exceed expenditure on pensions by £4bn-£5bn, but this situation is expected to go into reverse within the next seven or eight years.

The loss of many scheme members through redundancy and successive pay freezes has already reduced contributions. A rise in rates from 6.4% to 9.6%, after a previously agreed hike from 5.8% only a few years ago, could trigger an exodus.

Employers want a compromise that still saves the £900m demanded by ministers but offers staff the choice of reduced benefits. Local government workers get a retirement income worth two thirds of their final salary after 40 years of work. The rise in pension payments will preserve this benefit after 42 years. An option to stick with current payments could reduce the final payout to nearer half a worker's final salary.

One of the reasons unions are fighting the changes dates back to a cut in the inflation rate applied to retirement benefits from last April. The lower consumer prices index measure of inflation will reduce the purchasing power of every pension over time and cost public sector pensioners billions in lost payments. Phillip Inman
 London ~ Thursday 01 December 2011, page 1

The big squeeze: warning over incomes as Britain goes on strike

Families with children will be worse off in 2016 than 14 years earlier, analysis of George Osborne's autumn statement finds

Phillip Inman and Katie Allen

  The incomes of public sector workers, who went on strike on Wednesday over pension cuts, are 'certainly being squeezed', the IFS said. (Andy Rain/EPA)

High inflation, cuts and the longest period of wage stagnation on record will see the spending power of the average British family plummet over the next five years, a leading thinktank warned on Wednesday.

An   analysis predicted that average incomes, adjusted for inflation, will fall by 3% this year and further in 2012. The director of the IFS, Paul Johnson, said: "In the period 2009-10 to 2012-13, real median household incomes will drop by a whopping 7.4% – a record matched only by the falls seen between 1974 and 1977."

As up to 2 million public sector workers walked out in protest against changes to their pensions, and signs emerged of a potentially damaging rift within the Liberal Democrats in the wake of George Osborne's autumn statement, the thinktank warned that families with children will be worse off in 2016 than they were 14 years earlier as they cope with more than a decade of austerity.

The IFS's warning and the strikes came as the world's major central banks announced joint emergency measures to stop the international financial system from freezing up, and pushing the global economy into another recession. The measures included cutting emergency interest rates on dollar loans to cash-strapped European banks.

A Downing Street spokesman said the emergency measures were necessary because the markets were under extreme strain. "We are experiencing a credit crunch and that central bank action is about trying to mitigate the effects of that credit crunch," the spokesman said.

Not since the Callaghan government of the mid-70s have families come near to suffering a similar loss of income as the one now predicted to hit Britain over the next five years, the IFS said.

Lower income groups, it confirmed, will bear the brunt of the government's latest cuts, outlined by George Osborne on Tuesday. The chancellor's autumn statement signalled that the deteriorating economic outlook meant that there would be two more years of austerity than originally planned in his March budget.

Anti-poverty campaigners said the IFS figures showed that the coalition had shifted the burden of paying for the deficit on to the most vulnerable.

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the charity Child Poverty Action Group, said: "The IFS analysis confirms that the chancellor's new tax and benefit measures are a takeaway from low-income families with children to those at the middle and top. It is particularly perverse to reduce incomes of the lowest-paid working families by reducing tax credits when this is the group the government claims it wants to help through improved work incentives."

The oil price shocks of the 1970s forced the then Labour government to survive on IMF handouts and push through steep spending cuts and public-sector wage freezes. But wages recovered their previous spending power within four years.

The IFS analysis of the UK's current economic woes, and the coalition's reaction to them, both suggest that real median household incomes – where higher wages and salaries are adjusted to account for higher prices – will be no higher in 2015 than they were in 2002. A couple with no children typically enjoyed a weekly income of £437 in 2002 but by 2015 that will have dropped in real terms to £433. For a couple with two children the weekly income falls from £612 in 2002 to £606 in 2015. In the nine years since 2002 the cost of living has increased 30%.

The IFS analysis showed the unemployed and pensioners living on state benefits would do better than working families after benefits were linked to the 5.2% rise in inflation. Johnson said: "Failure to index some elements of tax credits, and the reversal of decisions to increase child tax credits in real terms, will leave some poorer families worse off and will lead to an increase in measured child poverty."

The IFS based its estimates for the squeeze on incomes on forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent watchdog that oversees Treasury spending plans and which published its own outlook for the economy alongside Osborne's statement.

It blamed a repeat oil price shock for most of the cuts in real incomes suffered by UK households. High energy prices were the largest single element fuelling an inflationary spiral that left many families worse off.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said there was an "unprecedented crisis" in living standards. "You can't build a sustainable economic recovery on the back of people getting poorer," he said.

"Rather than further hammering consumer confidence with public sector pay caps and cuts in working tax credits, the government needs to put greater emphasis on wage-led growth, starting with a fairer tax system where everyone – including the super-rich – pays their share."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the IFS report revealed the poorest 30% of households would lose more than three times as much as the richest 30%.

Official data this week showed UK families' weekly spending fell last year to the lowest in real terms for at least seven years. They cut back on spending on leisure to try to pay for housing, energy and transport costs. One of the big pressures facing households is high inflation, which has left most people worse off in real terms.

Pay growth for workers in Britain hit a record low between 2010 and 2011, according to official data last week. Pay was up just 0.4% on a year ago in terms of gross weekly earnings, meaning that incomes are tumbling in real terms, given that inflation stands at 5%. The Office for National Statistics also said the gap between Britain's highest and lowest paid workers had widened dramatically over the past year.

The IFS said one group whose incomes "are certainly being squeezed" is public sector workers. Its analysis suggests that the two years of on average 1%-a-year pay rises in the public sector to follow the current two-year pay freeze would be enough to wipe out the estimated pay gap between men in the public sector and private sector.

The thinktank puts the gap between public and private earners at 4.3% for men, taking into account education, age and qualification levels. For women the public sector premium is 10.5% and for both men and women it stands at 7.5%.

The IFS also looked into differences in public sector benefits across the UK. "Looking at pay alone, public sector workers appear, on average, to do relatively badly in London and the south-east and really rather well in some other areas including Wales and the north of England," Johnson said. The findings echo Osborne's move on Tuesday to ask public sector pay review bodies to look into how pay can be made more responsive to local labour markets.

Following forecasts for contraction at the end of this year and barely any growth next year, Osborne was forced to concede on Tuesday that the UK risked falling into recession. The resulting strain on the public finances led the chancellor to pencil in two more years of substantial cuts.

"That will extend to six years the period for which total spending will have been cut year-on-year," said Johnson. "One begins to run out of superlatives for describing quite how unprecedented that is.

"Certainly there has been no period like it in the UK in the last 60 years."

London ~ Thursday 01 December 2011, page 43

This strike could start to turn the tide of a generation

It's not just the scale of the walkout but the breadth that sets it apart: the 'big society', but not as Cameron meant it

By Seumas Milne

Protesters on Victoria Embankment in London during the public sector rally. Up to two million took part in the day of action. (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

It was the wrong time to call a strike. Industrial action would inflict "huge damage" on the economy. It would make no difference. Public sector workers wouldn't turn out and public opinion would be against them. Downing Street was said to be "privately delighted" the unions had "fallen into their trap".

The campaign against today's day of action has been ramped up for weeks, and in recent days has verged on the hysterical. The Mail claimed the street cleaners and care workers striking to defend their pensions were holding the country to "ransom", led by "monsters", while Rupert Murdoch's Sun called them "reckless" and "selfish".

Michael Gove and David Cameron reached for the spirit of the 1980s, the education secretary damning strike leaders as "hardliners itching for a fight", and the prime minister condemning the walkouts as the "height of irresponsibility", while also insisting on the day they had been a "damp squib".

But up to two million public employees, from teachers and nurses to dinner ladies, ignored them and staged Britain's biggest strike for more than 30 years. The absurd government rhetoric about gold-plated public pensions – 50% get £5,600 or less – clearly backfired.

It's not just the scale of the strike, though, but its breadth, from headteachers to school cleaners in every part of the country, that has set it apart. Most of those taking action were women, and the majority had never been on strike before. This has been the "big society" in action, but not as Cameron meant it.

And despite the best efforts of ministers and media, it has attracted strong public sympathy. The balance of opinion has varied depending on the question, but a BBC ComRes poll last week found 61% agreeing that public service workers were "justified in going on strike over changes to their pensions".

Of course that might well change if the dispute and service disruption drags on. But the day's mass walkouts should help bury the toxic political legacy of the winter of discontent – that large-scale public sector strikes can never win public support and are terminal for any politician that doesn't denounce and face them down.

The Tory leadership is unmistakably locked into that Thatcher-era mindset. Not only did George Osborne's autumn statement this week respond to the failure of his austerity programme by piling on more of the same for years to come, it was also the most nakedly class budget since Nigel Lawson hacked a third off the tax rate for the rich in 1988.

Any claim that "we're all in this together" can now only be an object of ridicule after Osborne coolly slashed child tax credit for the low paid, propelling 100,000 more children into poverty, to fund new bypasses and lower fuel duty.

And by announcing a 16% cut in public sector pay and benefits by 2015 along with a loss of 710,000 jobs, the chancellor declared war on his own workforce. Add to that the threat of less employment protection to sweeten privatisation deals and an end to national pay scales, and Osborne couldn't have made a stronger case for industrial action.

Public service workers are right to strike because that's the only way they can defend their pensions from Osborne's 3.2% raid and the only reason the government has made any concessions at all. They are also protecting public services from a race to the bottom in pay and conditions which can only erode their quality.

And far from damaging the economy, which is being dragged down by lack of demand and investment, the more successful they are in resisting cuts and protecting their living standards the more they will contribute to keeping it afloat.

But today's strike and whatever action follows it isn't just about pensions. It's also about resisting a drive to make public service workers pay for a crisis they have no responsibility for – while the bloated incomes of those in the financial and corporate sector who actually caused the havoc scandalously continue to swell.

When real incomes are being forced down for the majority, as directors' pay has risen 49% and bank bonuses have topped £14bn, that's an aim most people have no problem identifying with. Across the entire workforce there's little disagreement about who's been "reckless" and "greedy" – and it isn't public service workers.

As one Leeds gardener on £15,000 a year told the Guardian, striking was the only way to get the desperation of the low-paid on to the agenda of the wealthy: " they just don't have any idea of what it's like to live on pay like ours".

Cameron and Osborne's strategy from the start has been to divide the public sector workforce from the rest, hammer them to win extra market credibility – and convince private sector workers they'd be better off if education and health service pensions could be driven down to the often miserable or nonexistent level of most of the private sector.

The Conservative policy minister, Oliver Letwin, gave a taste of what else they have in mind when he told a consultancy firm that public services could only be reformed with " some real discipline and some fear".

But it looks as though ministers may have miscalculated. The message of striking public service workers chimes with the public mood. Private sector Unilever workers have just voted to take industrial action to defend their own pensions.

A crucial factor in the dire state of private sector pensions – and the wider wealth grab and mushrooming of inequality over the past generation – has been the decline in trade union strength. The fall in union membership since the 1970s is an almost exact mirror image of the runaway increase in the share of national income taken by the top 1% over the same period.

That is the common experience across the world wherever neoliberal capitalism has held sway, as are the attacks on living standards and public services, strikes, occupations and riots that Britain has had a taste of in the last 18 months. Which is why today's walkouts have attracted support from Nicaragua to Bangladesh.

One strike isn't, of course, going to force the government to turn tail. After Osborne's pay and jobs battering, the likelihood must be of more industrial action, with no guarantee of success. But today was a powerful demonstration of democratic workplace strength – which offers a chance to begin to turn the tide of a generation.

Twitter: @SeumasMilne
London ~ Thursday 01 December 2011, page 11

Was public sector strike a damp squib? Not for protesters in London

There was an ambiguous mix of support and uncertainty among the bystanders as marchers headed for the Embankment rally

By Michael White

A bus carrying union members is driven through Parliament Square in central London. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

When June and Dave Turner got caught up in the public sector demonstration in central London, their response to Britain's biggest strike in decades was supportive but uncertain. It captured perfectly the ambiguity so evident in opinion polls and the turnout, even in the Labour leader Ed Miliband's wary stance.

Retired civil servants down from Blackpool for a week's holiday, the Turners were walking between museums when they encountered the carnival-like procession and its police minders heading for the rally on the Thames Embankment. Well within roaring distance of the heavily protected Houses of Parliament, with a view painted by Monet.

An hour or so earlier, Miliband had used his Commons platform at PMQs to accuse ministers of spoiling for a fight with dinner ladies whom he himself refused to "demonise". But the Labour leadership's official position fell short of endorsing a stoppage, which Cameron was quick to dismiss, pre-scripted, as a "damp squib".

On marches up and down the country, it did not feel that way. The squib was large enough to close or partly close two schools in three and curb a range of public services, including NHS operations. "Our message to Cameron and his Lib Dem stooges is: 'Get back to the negotiating table and start talking again,'" thundered one union leader on the Embankment's big screen. If not, there will be more stoppages, warned many in the crowd of 25,000.

The Turners are unsure about the prospect of rolling strikes and disruption. In their late 60s, they first met as young officials in the old Ministry of Pensions' Stockport office in 1967. In the mid-90s both took tempting early retirement packages as part of John Major's cull of over-50s staff. So many posts were cut that Dave went straight back to his old benefits training job as a consultant – "half my old pay for one day's work a month" – for six years. June has worked in the private sector ever since. They've been quite comfortable.

"We've got mixed feelings. We've got our pensions," Mr Turner explained. "I do feel for the strikers. It's a very difficult time. When everyone is being cut back should one half have something different from the other half?" wondered Mrs Turner. From many strikers the answer was unequivocal: solidarity between generations and with the embattled private sector where defined benefit pensions are a fast-fading memory for nine in 10 staff.

Two young London teachers, Harrison Littler and Shelly Coles, have done the maths. "I'm not going to be able to teach for another 45 years," says Littler. In effect, he thinks the new retirement age of 68 is really an invitation to pay more contributions – 9% instead of 6% – but to retire early on a lower pension. Says Coles: "Governments say they want good teachers, but I don't see this offer making hard-working types with excellent degrees taking it up."

From Tom Sainsbury, a neuroscience student from nearby King's College, comes the claim that his group on the march – it passed King's front door – are "supporting our lecturers, the admin' staff, the cleaners."

From a retired teacher, Heather Flint, up from suburban Twickenham with her husband, Harry, came yet another perspective. "We are the fortunate generation, we got our degrees with full grants and no tuition fees, now we have our pensions. We want young teachers to get a decent settlement too." In the Strand, passing youngsters chanted "Tory, Tory, Tory, Out, Out, Out" as their parents may have done in the 80s.

Holding a banner and wearing an immaculate suit and tie, Ralph Graham was also vehement. "I'm doing this because of Cameron's attempt to separate those people over 50, whose pensions are not affected, telling us we're safe. That is outrageous," he said.

Graham is a past chairman of the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, not the striking type. The rally was full of Middle Britain marchers like him, some from teachers' unions that had not struck in a century. Up from Surrey, Rosham Peddler said she has never worked in the public sector, but came anyway.

Though it lacks the courage to stray too far from public opinion, Labour's private hunch is that the coalition is underestimating the level of anxiety being experienced by squeezed Middle Britain and the revulsion it feels at the unfairness of it all. Even with a noisy sideshow, UK Uncut's occupation in the Haymarket, the event was as wholesome as London has come to expect since the ill-policed student rampage last November. Even bright sunshine is now obligatory.

This time the Met, out in force for a relaxed stroll, issued a handy leaflet, complete with map and FAQs: "What is Section 60?" and "what if I want to make a complaint." in the battle to win over wavering public opinion all sides are taking no chances. When the rally organisers said "Go home" everyone politely drifted off.

Loitering for a quick rollup before heading home to Harlow, a Unison member, David Brown, put a blue-collar perspective on the protest. Self-employed and 50, a care-worker with several jobs, Brown reckons he works six or seven days a week for much less pay than 20 years ago.

"If they get away with this we'll see austerity like we've never seen, like Greece. We're here to say no." Then he brightens up at the thought of all the jobs that will need to be created to support a workforce as old as 68. "They'll need comfy chairs and backrests for older workers, a loop for the hard-of-hearing and incontinence pads." Brown laughs, but he's not laughing inside.