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John Phelan: A public sector strike over pensions will neither elicit public sympathy nor especially inconvenience us

Picture 10 John Phelan is a Conservative Party member and a final year economics student at Birkbeck College who blogs here.

The news that the Deep Thought computer would be programmed to unravel the great questions of existence was bad news for the philosophers in Terry Pratchett’s Douglas Adams' classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty” shouts one, another warning that “You’ll have a national Philosopher’s strike on your hands!” Deep Thought pauses then asks: “And who will that inconvenience?”

You might have felt a little like Deep Thought this week reading the various warnings of mass public action emanating from the public sector unions. “It will not be one day of action”, warned Dave Prentis of Unison, “it will be long-term industrial action throughout our public services to prevent destruction of our pension schemes”

A period of prolonged and extensive strikes could be bad news for a government battling to get runaway borrowing under control. So far the muted support for the coalition’s fiscal programme outweighs the noisy opposition. But, given that with high inflation and interest rate rises on the way we probably haven’t seen the end of the downturn yet, this could change.

But you can never underestimate the stupidity of trade unions.

If they were choosing to strike in opposition to the coalition’s fiscal programme they might garner some wider support. But they aren’t. They are striking over pensions. They are striking in defence of their right to retire earlier than their private sector counterparts on pensions higher than anything on offer to their private sector counterparts - and all paid for by higher taxes on their recession ravaged private sector counterparts. Almost every story about the threatened industrial action has been illustrated with pictures of banners reading ‘Hands off my pension’. Taxpayers should say ‘Hands off my wages’. The idea that unions will attract much support on this battlefield can generously be described as fanciful.

Not only is the union leaders' rhetoric divorced from morality, it is also divorced from reality. June 30th is being hyped up by some as a General Strike intended to bring the country grinding to a halt, taking its inspiration from the 1926 General Strike.

That Britain came to a standstill in 1926 is not in doubt, but back then the strike included railwaymen, iron and steel workers, dockers and transport workers. Many of those jobs, in as much as they are performed in the UK any longer, are no longer heavily unionised. This is part of a more general trend of deunionisation which has seen the Trade Union Congress lose half of the 12 million members it had in 1980.

And the makeup of the general strikers of 1926 indicates another force telling against today’s unions; their work is simply far less vital to the day to day working of the British economy than it used to be.

The public sector contains workers, such as health workers and teachers, who undoubtedly do important work. But the last Labour government created 849,000 public sector jobs and it is doubtful just how many of these do anything really useful or cover their opportunity cost. In 2006, 1.2 million public sector workers staged a one day strike over pensions in what was described as the largest industrial action in the UK since the General Strike. Nobody noticed. Indeed, strikes could backfire spectacularly on the likes of Unison. If the economy continues to rumble along regardless even at its current feeble rate it could show just how easily the UK could get along without a lot of these workers. With private sector job creation roaring ahead David Cameron might well whisper ‘Bring it on’.

So next time you hear someone like Prentis or the even more ridiculous Mark Serwotka, who rants like some modern day Mick McGahey while leading the Public and Commercial Services Union, warning of industrial chaos, do what Deep Thought did: pause, then ask “And who will that inconvenience?”


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