Monday, November 28, 2011

Preparing for the day of action

As I type, I am currently making plans at work to cover my absence on Wednesday when I, and most of my colleagues, will be out on strike. In a previous blog entry in June, I had mentioned this as a possibility, and, indeed, there was a strike ballot and I voted in favour.

Four of my colleagues have moved on recently, so, because of the recruitment freeze, I am now doing three jobs. We have not had a pay rise for three years. Many positions, including mine, are due to disappear over the next year or so. And now the government have decided that the deficit is all our fault and we’ve got to pay for it, either by losing large chunks of our pensions, or pulling out of the scheme completely. And they wonder why morale is low.

But, I hear many of you say, things are much worse for the private sector. Indeed they are! Only a third of private sector workers have made provision for their retirement – a frightening figure. But instead of wanting everyone to ensure that we are all suffering equally, does it not make sense to raise the private sector levels of pensions? Maybe some sort of compulsory insurance scheme? There were all-party talks last year about the future funding of elderly health care until the Tories pulled out. I would like to see these resumed.

Over the weekend, we’ve seen stories about how the improved offer will be withdrawn unless we play ball. However, I am not sure if this ‘offer’ has actually been made – which does make it difficult to accept. Presumably a government PR game for the benefit of the media.

One disappointing aspect of the whole saga was the turnout for the strike ballot. Only 29% of Unison members could be bothered to vote in a free postal vote. This gives ammunition to those amongst the Tories who are advocating passing a law to say that strikes are only valid if a majority of the members approve it (as opposed to a majority of the voters) which would effectively outlaw strikes forever.

This measure presumes that those who have not voted must therefore be voting against a strike – and I would be concerned about any electoral method where the views of those who didn’t vote are counted one way. Introducing strike ballots was one of the few good ideas of the Thatcher government – but even she did not go this far.

On top of this, some in the Conservative party are advocating methods by which it would be easier to offload people, such as ending maternity cover and limiting access to tribunals. Although Vince Cable and Danny Alexander are wrong about the pensions dispute, at least one can be glad Liberal Democrats are in the government to attempt to keep such daft ideas at bay. At a time of high unemployment, reducing the rights of workers is not what is needed.

Research shows that productivity is highest when employees are happiest - not when they are constantly in fear of unemployment. And, in difficult times, we need greater productivity.

So there is much at stake in this dispute. The government, the media, even the opposition parties, are all joining in the campaign to make the public sector workers into the villains – but trust me, folks. Nurses, teachers, dinner ladies, office workers and so on - we are the good guys! And, as I said in June, much of the public sector is ‘magic’.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The economy comes home ... again.

The country’s economic situation got closer to home recently with the news that my job is likely to disappear sometime over the next year. Most of the public sector has been ordered by the government to make cuts in spending, and, for me, a draft plan involves staff cuts. It is only a draft for now but any refinement is not likely to be in my favour.

The silver lining is that I have plenty of notice – many have little or no notice of redundancy – once I turned up to work to be out of a job by lunchtime. But as one enters his 45th year, it does give pause for reflection.

It was in August 1992 when I left Aberystwyth with my shiny new Masters degree to add to my upper second graduate degree, and I settled back in with my parents near Portsmouth ready for the next chapter in my life and to continue the job search. I was then unemployed for the rest of 1992 and then for all of 1993.

This was a very depressing experience. A recession was in full swing and Norman Lamont was in Number 11 with his famous statement that unemployment was ‘a price worth paying’. Businesses closed everywhere, unemployment hit the roof, times were hard all round. And as for us graduates, my counterparts were either with me on the dole, or were doing low paid job in burger bars and supermarkets. I travelled around, had a few interviews – but getting that final handshake remained elusive.

I well recall one morning, having been notified of a new vacancy, getting on the phone and being told that 600 (!) people had already called so they had closed the vacancy.

When Nick Clegg said recently that Labour must never again be trusted with the economy, I remember similar thoughts in 1993, as I walked down Commercial Road in Portsmouth, to the job club, past numerous empty shops and closing down sales, and thinking that the Tories must never be trusted with the economy again. In fact, as soon as Chancellor Lamont moved on, the country began to recover. Coincidence? (He is now Lord Lamont – so clearly he was not one of those who had to pay the price).

In my lifetime, it is clear that both major parties have mismanaged the economy. Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, at least one has to be trusted with it!

I recall a statement by Tony Benn, who said that capitalism needs unemployment – it keeps the workers quiet and the unions inactive. At the time this was dismissed as leftie-rubbish, but now one does wonder. Earlier this year, in fact, Oliver Letwin said that public sector workers needed ‘discipline and fear’. Is low growth and unemployment a ploy by the ruling and political classes to keep the status quo in place? Are workers more motivated and productive when fearing for their futures? I guess that is a topic for others to discuss and theorise about.

In my case, I eventually got a job in the summer of 1994 working for a political magazine and have managed, more or less, to stay employed in various roles ever since. But now it is time to dust off and update the CV and see what jobs are out there. Hopefully this time it won’t take me so long.