Public sector workers are taxpayers too!

Posted: November 5, 2011 in Current affairs, The economy

It’s an old line but it keeps coming up: public sector strikes against pension reform are unfair to the taxpayer. It came up again on this week’s edition of Question Time  (BBC1, 3 November) in answer to the first question of the night: ‘Is it right for the public sector workers to strike when they have been offered a better deal?’ The question referred to a last-minute concession in the government’s plans to restructure public sector pensions this week, designed to head off a mass public sector day of action scheduled for 30 November. However, it hasn’t been enough to prevent a vote in favour of strike action among members of the biggest public sector union, UNISON.

Step up Home Secretary Theresa May to predictably say, no it’s not right for public sector workers to strike in these circumstances and that it’s not fair on ‘the taxpayer’:

What I think is fair is that we have an arrangement for public sector pensions that gives public sector workers…a decent pension in their retirement but also is a fair deal for the taxpayer…And remember it’s people in the private sector who have seen their pensions devastated in recent years – the taxpayers – who are paying for the public sector pensions’.

Do you see what she did there? Twice, she presents the public sector worker and the taxpayer as mutually exclusive categories and drives the usual wedge between workers in the public and private sectors, a very important tactic in Tory strategy to divide and conquer public opinion about their disastrous fiscal and economic policies. The fact that co-panellist Shirley Williams spoke directly afterwards in support of Theresa May says it all about the shameful role of the Lib Dems as junior allies in this war against jobs and pensions.

Of course, public sector workers are taxpayers too. And just like average-earning taxpayers in the private sector, they are bearing the brunt of having to bail out the banks, subsidize corporate tax evasion and the refusal of government to fairly tax the super-rich, maintain ‘public-private partnerships’ in which private companies run public services for massive profits thanks to ‘the taxpayer’ and fund dubious military adventures abroad (the drums are beating louder for war against Iran now!)

We have to resist this Tory lie and insist again and again that the public and private sectors depend on each other and that hundreds of thousands of workers across this artificial divide are underpaid, work in poor conditions and are victims of one of the most inequitable tax regimes in Europe.

But we also have to build some solidarity. Public sector unions have to speak for the thousands of private sector workers who are forbidden to be part of a union and have no recourse to employment rights. And workers in the private sector have to accept that their counterparts in the public sector are not the enemy here, that they are not the cause of their difficulties.

So is it right to strike? Bloody right it is!  The so-called concession the government offered public sector workers ahead of their strike ballot this week was, again, designed to divide and rule, promising that those within ten years of retirement from 1 April next year would not see a reduction to their pension (Note the date!)  It may even have worked to an extent. The UNISON ballot returned a 78% majority in favour of strike action but that was on the basis of a 29% turnout.

On the other hand, Shadow Chancellor of Exchequer, Ed Balls, also a panellist on the same edition of Question Time, suggests that the government’s last minute offer was calibrated for rejection. An unpopular public sector strike is just what the Tories want – a fig leaf with which to push through further cuts to public sector jobs, pensions and services.

No, comrades!  We have to stand up against this and shout a bit louder – together!

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