IT has been a fractious New Year so far. Different groups of public sector workers are periodically on strike, or discussing or considering future strikes. Relations between the Government and Trade Unions are strained to say the least. Meanwhile everyone else worries about the effect of transport strikes on their ability to get to work in order to pay ever-increasing bills for energy, food and many other things, or about the effect of health service strikes on a long-awaited operation. As ever, it is worth drawing breath and considering what the problem really is and how best to solve it.
First of all, although it is hard to escape the impression that some Trade Union leaders are more interested in bringing down the Government than in bringing up their members’ wages, I believe that the vast majority of public sector Trade Union members exercise their right to strike with great reluctance and remain concerned about the effect of their action on the public they serve. It was noticeable that during recent strike action by nursing union members, nurses on picket lines outside hospitals went back inside to deal with emergencies when they were asked to. It is important to recognise that, especially in the Health Service, working conditions are very difficult due to the ongoing effect of the pandemic and a backlog of tests and treatments that remains to be cleared, along with flu and more Covid infections filling wards and diminishing the already strained workforce. It is also undeniable that higher prices for essentials have made demands for significant pay rises seem not just persuasive but unanswerable. It has also been tempting for many to see the Government’s resistance to them as a political choice based on wilful ignorance or prejudice.
However, everyone should also be prepared to recognise that, just as the resulting pressures are real, the Government did not invent Covid or flu, nor did it instigate the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has been the greatest contributing factor to much higher energy and food prices. Few now criticising the Government suggested it should have spent less supporting individuals and businesses during the pandemic period, nor can it be unspent now anyway. That £400 billion expenditure has an undeniable effect on the State’s spending (and borrowing) power today, including on higher wages. Even if we had the money, very high wage rises are likely to push inflation even higher, making the extra money in wage packets go less far and bills become even less affordable.
So what should we do? First, we should recognise that the current very high rates of inflation are a short-term problem that requires a short term-solution. There have been steps taken to help in particular those on low incomes (who do not all work in the public sector of course) cope with higher energy costs, and the Government should look at further cost of living payments which last as long as the crisis does, not at pay rises that will be permanent. Second, we should recognise that the current strikes have highlighted some long-term problems too. Asking for more efficient systems to ensure public money is spent most efficiently is not saying public sector workers should be working harder, rather that public money could be spent better, especially where, as on the railways, some working practices are clearly out of date. Requiring minimum service levels to be maintained on strike days for essential services, as many other countries do, is not a cancellation of the right to strike (which would remain), it is a recognition that our society needs access to those services at all times, especially the least well off among us, and that both private sector and other public sector workers need public transport to get to work and to earn the taxes that will provide the higher public sector funding we all agree we want.