The strikes and protests witnessed in Britain's cities this week may well signal the start of a phase of industrial disputes, as public sector employees fight to retain the rather substantial privileges granted to them by successive governments over the years. Teachers provided the bulk of this week's non-attendees at the workplace, but the wider trade union movement appears to be gearing up for a protracted campaign in the months ahead.
Public opinion may end up being the determining factor in whether the coalition government feels obliged to make concessions. According to one poll, less than a third of the British public sympathise with the strike action, but attitudes can change rapidly in a febrile and unpredictable environment. This makes it doubly important to properly describe and explain the economics of the situation.
The first thing to say is that the protests are those of the disproportionately privileged and protected. It is understandable, of course, that these relatively affluent people are seeking to defend their own financial interests, but it would be wrong for them to be portrayed as poor or oppressed. Public sector pay is, on average, higher than pay in the private sector. But there are substantial other benefits too – the sort of pensions teachers are awarded are the equivalent of a contribution of around 40 per cent of their annual salary. The vast bulk of people in the private sector can only dream of such a copper-bottomed, financially-secure retirement. The government's relatively mild suggested reforms in this area have been the key catalyst for the strike.
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