WEDNESDAY STRIKES: We grill Brendan Barber about action that could cost £500m

We demand an explanation from the TUC general secretary

The public sector strikes taking place on Wednesday promise to be the biggest in nearly a century. They could cost the economy £500m.

Twenty-three unions plan to strike, prompting a walk-out by 2.6 million public sector workers. The last strike of this magnitude was the general strike of 1926.

Last week pensions minister Francis Maude and chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said Wednesday’s action could lead to a loss of jobs, at a time when one in 10 Londoners are already unemployed.

Said Alexander: “£500m is a realistic worst-case estimate of the impact of this day of strike action on the economy, assuming that everyone the unions balloted goes on strike.

“That’s a very significant hit to the economy at what is an incredibly challenging time for the UK and for economies all round the world. That’s one of the reasons why this strike action is so irresponsible.”

Dr Helen Hill, director of policy and public affairs at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has also condemned the action. Hill calls for those in the public sector to accept, as the private sector has done, that “most people will have to work much longer and pay more into their pension pot along the way.”

Dismissive of David Cameron’s pleas for firms to allow their children into the office, Hill said that for the vast majority of people, taking the children to work will “not be an option”.

LondonlovesBusiness.com speaks to TUC general secretary Brendan Barber to find out why he thinks the strikes are justified:

Brendan Barber - TUC general secretary

LLB: PwC estimates that private sector workers would need to contribute 37 per cent of their salary to their pension pot over their working lifetime to match the retirement income paid to a public sector worker on an equivalent wage. Many low-paid private sector workers don’t have employer-based pension schemes. How do you respond to this?

BB: Most public sector pensions are less than £5,600 a year, or under £3,000 in local government. These are hardly the gold-plated pensions that critics suggest are available, and certainly don’t compare with the astronomical pensions trousered by fat cat directors in the private sector. It’s disgraceful that so many private sector employers have stopped providing decent or indeed any pensions for their staff, but creating a race to the bottom by cutting public sector pensions won’t help anyone.

LLB: The UK national debt is now almost £5 trillion - how do you suggest we tackle this, if not by cutting pensions?

BB: Cutting pensions is not a credible strategy for tackling the deficit. We need investment in jobs to get people working and paying taxes. If the government wants to introduce taxes targeted at specific groups of workers, most people would agree that rather than tax the pension savings of nurses and teachers, it would be far fairer to tax the bonuses of bankers who helped cause the financial crash and who are paid far more than any public sector [worker] could ever hope to earn.

LLB: With so many people in the private sector not eligible for employer-based pension schemes, do you sympathise with private sector employees and employers who think the public sector has it pretty good?

BB: Unions believe in fair pensions for all workers. Private sector workers with no pension should direct their anger at successive employers who have walked [away] from offering decent staff pensions, and should ask questions about the £29bn in pension tax relief that they are contributing to; two-thirds of which goes to higher-rate taxpayers.

LLB: Many business leaders have condemned public sector walk-outs. What do you have to say to them?

BB: It is entirely predictable that business leaders are disappointed at the strike, which will cause disruption. The blame for this lies squarely on the government for failing to take the negotiations seriously until the day of action was called.

LLB: Do you not fear such extreme action on Wednesday will create a bigger chasm between the public and the private sectors? Possibly even returning us to the fraught relations we saw in Thatcher’s day?

BB: A one-day strike in favour of public sector pensions is a far cry from the days of Thatcher. Even the most ardent Thatcherites would probably baulk at the prospect of the police baton charging striking nurses and teachers.

LLB: Francis Maude and Danny Alexander have said Wednesday’s strike could cost the economy £500m from the knock on effects of loss of output, largely due to parents staying home to look after kids. How do you respond? How much do you think will be lost through loss of output?

BB: The figures bandied about by the government are not credible. They are simply the latest part of a government strategy to scapegoat hard-working public sector workers and pre-emptively blame them for the economic mess that they’ve presided over.

What do you think of Barber’s justification for Wednesday’s looming strikes? Leave your comments below…

The impact of Wednesday’s strikes on your business

Employees who are parents forced to stay at home

The impact for London schools will be significant. Both the National Union of Teachers and the head teachers union (NAHT) are striking – this is the first time NAHT has called a strike. As a result, the NUT predicts that 90 per cent of London schools will strike, leaving many parents with no alternative but to stay home from work.

That said, the NAHT say this isn’t certain. “Members are not required to tell us whether they will be striking or not,” said a NAHT spokesperson. “Also, it is a popular misconception that schools have to close because the head teacher is absent. However, where there may be considerable numbers of classroom teachers on strike and members of support unions, it is hard to see how the majority of primary schools could stay open.

“In sum, I suspect it will be very difficult for the vast majority of primary schools, anywhere in the country, to stay open, and many secondaries may struggle.  In other words, there will be widespread closures.”

Steve Dance of business continuity consultancy RiskCentric believes the schools closing will have the biggest impact for London’s businesses.“The biggest effect could be in staff availability amongst those staff who have school-age children and dependents,” he says.

Employees’ fear of poor performance

The LCCI’s Hill cites job security worries as a key consideration in the run up to the strike, suggesting that many parents won’t want to take the day off for fear it could impact on their job. “With many workers worried about job security, the last thing they want to do is to have to ask to work from home or take a day off when they don’t really want to,” she says.

Travel chaos: commuting and flying

For those commuting in and out of London, getting to work might not be a viable option at all. Last week Heathrow owner BAA warned of 12-hour delays on Wednesday as a result of UK Border Agency workers striking. BAA warned airlines of potential “gridlock” at London’s largest airport and advised carriers to fly planes at 50 per cent.

Gatwick Airport is also preparing for a “worst case scenario.” A spokesperson said: “We are still looking at finalising our contingency plans, we don’t know yet what level of resource UKBA [Border Agency] will be able to apply on the day, so we can’t calculate the level of disruption – but it will be a challenging day for us and we’re planning for worst case scenario.”

Gatwick is advising those planning to fly on Wednesday to check with their carrier if any arrangements have been put in place.

Dealing with the impact of strikes on your business

Dance says: “Businesses might want to dust off some of the arrangements made for the flu pandemic, as the impact on staff availability is similar (although the timing and duration of the strike is far more predictable). 

“Here, flexible working hours and home working, where applicable, might be considered. Given the relatively short duration of the interruption affected, staff could be asked to take a mandatory days’ leave.”

The unions striking are:

The Association of Educational Psychologists, Aspect, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, the Educational Institute of Scotland, the First Division Association, GMB, National Association of Head Teachers, Napo (family court and probation staff), the teachers’ union NASWUT, Northern Ireland Public Service Association, National Union of Teachers, Public and Commercial Services Union, Prospect, the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, the Society of Radiographers, Ucac (one of the Welsh teachers’ unions), Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, University and College Union, Unison and Unite.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Another example of the dinosaurs of the trade union movement flexing their muscles and damn the consequences. How many of the union leaders involved in promoting this day of (in)action are themselves on a salary and pension package that exceeds anything that their members could dream of and that is on a par with that of the majority of the "fat cats" they vilify. Those who strike tomorrow are as deluded as their counterparts in Greece if they think that they will benefit from the disruption they cause.

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  • £500million is about 36 seconds of the average daily turnover in the City. Its outrageous disingenuous propaganda to speak of £500million as even vaguely significant in comparison to the reasons for the strike; the grotesque inhuman cruelty of a system that funnels more and more wealth to a tiny fraction of humanity, mainly in finance, and in the UK in the City, which according to the BIS as reported in the Telegraph was £1.2 trillion or 37pc of global turnover in 2010 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/currency/7975193/Financial-crisis-boosts-Londons-dominance-in-global-currency-trading.html

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  • Its not even wrong to frame the debt question as equating to cuts when 97% of money (i.e. purchasing power, QE aside) is created as debt in a government sanctioned private bank pyramid selling 'Ponzi' scheme, meaning its IMPOSSIBLE to pay it back without the money supply evaporating, let alone tackling the fraud of interest on its creation
    http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/~roehrigw/ kennedy/english/chap1.htm.
    The only solution to public debt (in fact most all debt) is money reform whereby money is created as a public utility. I thought LBB had agreed this line of reasoning when we debunked the alleged Occupy LSX "myths" in the comments section a few weeks ago !?
    http://www.neweconomics.org/blog/2011/09/29/why-an-understanding-of-money-creation-is-essential-to-financial-reform

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