With a junior doctor’s strike this week I heard various opinions being expressed (on talk radio or Question Time), mostly by Tory voters along the lines of suggesting that public sector workers should not have the right to strike. They expressed the view that public sector workers have better job security, better pensions and fixed working hours compared to workers in the private sector and should be happy for what they’ve got. I’m afraid that while this might have been true a decade or two ago, its simply no longer the case, as the “perks” of a public sector job have taken a pounding as a result of Tory austerity.
Let’s take the issue of job security. These days a permanent job in the public sector is as rare as hens teeth. Many new entrants to the public sector will be on a temporary contracts. I’d say in most universities for example I’d estimate about half of the staff are on such contracts (this article suggests its closer to a third tho so I suspect it depends which department you are in), representing, I’d estimate, about the majority of recent hires.
Now if your lucky and persevere (like me) and get a permanent contract, that’s not quite as permanent as you’d think. You can still get the sack if certain “targets” are missed, or if your post is simply axed as part of Tory austerity. And keep in mind that about 300,000 public sector jobs have gone since the Tories took power, with another 500,000 under threat. While I’d still argue that job security is slightly better in the public sector….its only that, slightly. And in some sectors its probably a good deal worse.
And those who want to keep there jobs can expect to work longer hours and less regular hours. In many uni’s now lectures are increasingly being held later and later. My timetable stretches to 21:00 potentially (whether the students will show up at that hour I’m not sure!) and lecturing up till 18:00 is increasingly the norm (I’ve suggested 8am starts to compensate, but apparently getting students out of bed at that hour is seen as being impossible!).
This is a major issue, because often the whole reason why some people took a public sector job was because they wanted to fix their working hours. Imagine for example, you’re a single mum, you take a job with fixed hours so that you don’t have to worry about out of hours child care, even though the pay is lower. Then suddenly the boss turns around and tells you that you have to work after school hours and on weekends, how would you feel?
As for pensions, while many older public sector workers are on final salary schemes, most new entrants (such as me) are on less generous career average schemes, closer to the terms of those in the private sector get. And as part of the austerity, the Tories are talking about raiding the public sector pension schemes.
So given all these factors you can understand the frustrations. After all, the pay rates for public sector workers are generally lower than equivalent jobs in the private sector. If I left for a private sector job, I’d could expect at least 10-30% more on top of my basic salary, not including bonuses, company car or other perks.
Inevitably, you start treating public sector workers like private sector workers, take away all the historical benefits of being in the public sector and they are going to start demanding the same salary as private sector workers (with a similar level of experience and education). Or, as in the case of junior doctors, simply refuse such terms as not being what they signed up for when they joined. And its not as if junior NHS doctors are know for idleness or an unwillingness to work at odd hours.
And this is not helped by the fact that the Tories, under the cloak of austerity, are trying to impose a sort of stealth privatisation of certain public services, something that recent allegations involving G4S showed the dangers of. Often this can result in public sector workers having their jobs taken by less well qualified private contractors, who are often on higher pay! So you can imagine the reaction of workers isn’t likely to be positive.
Ultimately Osborne seems to think that just because 25% of the electorate voted for the Tories (once you account for 66% turn out on election night and 37% of votes) this somehow gives them the mandate to tear up contracts and alter the deal for public sector workers.
And speaking of mandate, consider that Hitler had a greater electoral mandate than the Tories currently enjoy (he got 44% of the vote out of a turn out of 88%, giving a mandate from 38% of the electorate v’s the Tories 25%). Did this justify his tearing up of the German constitution? well of course not! Similarly just because you win one election does not give a government the right to undo a raft of policy from previous governments (hence why I suspect a vote to leave the EU will probably face legal challenges), nor does it grant the right to renege on contracts previously signed. If this was a contract for work signed with one of the Tories wealthy donors, they would be sued for such an action and rightly so.
Inevitably, if the conditions for public sector workers worsen, its only inevitable that they’ll start to protest, or demand a higher salary. There is, as it were, a price to be paid for austernity.