Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Strike It Lucky

So what do we all think of this whole strike business then? Last week Unison announced that its members had voted in favour of a strike and then this week the news came that NIPSA had followed suit. The big strike is due to take place on 30 November. So, it is just whingey public servants complaining because their golden handcuffs have now lost some of their shine, or is there a genuine reason for complaint?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make. I am a civil servant. This is perhaps not shocking news, especially when you consider the name of this blog and the picture of a mug of tea above. I am also a NIPSA member.

It wasn't always that way - I used to think that unions were all mouth and no trousers, making mountains out of molehills in individual cases and playing the yappy poodle nipping at the government's ankle with the bigger issues (annoying certainly, but pretty easy to kick should they actually draw blood). Being totally honest I still do think that a wee bit. However, very sadly, in this era of blame culture it's nice to have the knowledge that someone will be on your side if something goes wrong at work, even if only because you're paying them to. And so, after a couple of incidents at work a few years ago that had fried my nerves, I signed up.

This of course means that I get the option to vote when they propose something like strike action. I must admit, I stared long and hard at my voting card before I made a decision this time around. There were two questions, essentially:

(1) Are you in favour of strike action?
(2) Are you in favour of action that is short of strike action?

Since the example given for the latter was stop agreeing to do overtime, I knew I was definitely all for that one - I never get the opportunity for overtime anyway so it was no skin off my nose. However, I pondered, if it doesn't really affect me, what effect is it really going to have on the evil government pension people either? So, to strike or not to strike, that was the question?

Another confession: I don't really understand much about pensions. I get that I contribute a certain amount from my salary and then the government is supposed to cough up a certain amount to go with it, so when I finally retire (probably at the age of 92 the way things are going), have my celebratory bun party and sail off into the sunset on the first Metro bus out of Civil Serviceville, I still have enough of an income to put the central heating on once a week in winter and keep me in tins of cat food. I also understand that the whole problem erupted this time because essentially the government want us to pay more, whilst they contribute less, and make us work for longer.

However that's pretty much all I clearly understand, because all of the other facts are obscured by selective statistics, bold claims and other general propaganda from both sides. NIPSA want us to see the government as the enemy, to the extent that the covers of their recent awareness leaflets actually have targets on them, with catchy slogans as subtle as "government has your pay in its sights" (be afraid worker bees, be very afraid!). In the meantime the government is trying to prevent half its workforce walking out on strike by employing the old stick and carrot routine, on the one hand telling us that their proposed offer will give us "at least as good a pension, if not better, than you get now" (widely condemned as utter nonsense), whilst on the other hand sending us emails warning us that striking will be breaking the terms of our employment contracts (doom, doooooom!).

I can be a little ditzy at times in life but generally I'm a logical and pragmatic person, so it annoys me that I can't just get the straight facts to help me work out what's really in my best interests. It leaves me feeling a little like Clover from Animal Farm, feeling entirely uncertain about who's right and who's wrong, having "great difficulty in thinking anything out" for myself and just hoping that somewhere at the top, the right people really are doing what's best for me. But we all know how that turned out for Clover…

What I have been able to establish is that with the government's current proposals, I could be paying somewhere around £60 more per month to my pension fund. The government will also be paying less in to my pension fund. So essentially I would be paying a lot more of my pay than I can afford to something that will benefit me less in the long run. It's hardly very appealing when you put it like that.

What I don't understand is how the terms and conditions of something like a pension scheme can just be changed without the consent of both parties. I mean, I signed an agreement that I would pay x% and they would pay x% and (naively) assumed that would remain the status quo until I retired, or at the very least that they would have to ask for my agreement if they wanted to change it. Granted, somewhere in the small print there is probably some get-out clause for them saying that the terms and conditions are subject to change, but when you work for the government, you don't really expect that the government will try and screw you over in return, or at least not to this extent. They've already frozen our pay (which, given inflation and cost of living increases, is essentially a pay cut) and now they want us to pay up even more.


The longer I work in the public service, the more cynical I get. Essentially we're just numbers, not valued employees. When I log on to some internal systems it greets me by my payroll number and not my name; it always reminds me of the bit in Who Am I? from Les Misérables when he sings "Who am I? Two Four Six Oh Oooonnnneeee!" Bottom line, so far as senior government officials are concerned, each civil servant is like a maths equation. If employee A works for X hours per week, gets paid £Y per year and produces Z amount of work, solve for potential savings. I feel like going all Elephant Man on them and insisting that "I am a human being!"

Wow lots of cultural references today. Please be assured it's an aberration. My favourite show is Glee for goodness sake!

But actually that brings me back to why I eventually decided to vote in favour of strike action. I know that the unions are always up in arms about something. I know that their propaganda is mostly made up of arbitrary statistics and designed purely to scare people into action. I am not quite so naive that I will blindly believe whatever they tell me but I'll willingly admit that my knowledge of the specifics and the actual ramifications is a somewhat lacking. But yet, even in my ignorance, even I can see the unions have a point this time.

I believe that I currently get paid a pretty fair wage for the job I do. Some private sector jobs in the same discipline pay more, some pay less. However the end result of these pension changes is that I will be more than £750 a year worse off with no immediate hope of any pay increase to make up for it. Also that when I signed up to my job, one of the perceived benefits was good pension contributions from my employer, which is also now headed for a sharp decline.

But perhaps more significantly to me than these disadvantages on a personal level is the precedent it will set. If we all just roll over and say, "sure, screw me over, I don't mind!" this time, what's to stop them doing it again and again in future years? By the time I reach retirement age at 104 my pension could be worthless and I could still be on the bottom of my pay scale.

So I feel it's only appropriate that we take a stand now. Okay so we might not get another improved offer and it could all be for nothing, but at least it shows that we're not going to take it lying down. So I'll be sacrificing a day's pay, but realistically that's less than the extra amount they want me to pay each month in pension contributions anyway. And just imagine if it worked and the government did indeed back down - it could all be worth it. Unlikely (cynical me emerging again) but you never know.

So now there is really only one very important decision I have to make. Will I bother getting out of bed that morning or just make the most of my unpaid day off? I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens!


  1. Appreciate your confession as a civil servant. However, please don't confuse the ordinary state pension that everyone pays and receives as part of National Insurance, versus the proposed "careen average" final pension that public sector workers receive:

    As a private sector worker, I have no sympathy with the planned strike action:

    1. While you may need to pay £50+ per month more, you are forgetting to mention that the Government (i.e. rest of us taxpayers) are matching your monthly payment with a c. 28% monthly contribution. I would LOVE my employer to make such a contribution. As it is, the max for me is a matching 10%. (Some public sector workers are daft enough to opt out of this scheme.)

    2. Isn't the public sector retirement age still 60? For the rest of us, it will by 66 soon, and planned to be 68 by the time I get there (and my family genetics aren't favourable!).

    So, yes, you'll need to cough up an extra £600 per year for an earlier pension that the rest of us will insure by paying higher taxes. Plus I would have to save an extra £500,000 for a similar pension payout (because Government is contributing so much more to your pot than my employer and I can do to mine).

    Sorry, no sympathy here at all whatsoever.

  2. Lucky I didn't ask for your sympathy then isn't it? :-)

    In all seriousness, it's easy for private sector workers to complain that their pension scheme is inferior to the public sector's, even the newly proposed version. And yes, there is no argument there. However a pension is only one aspect of the benefits of a job.

    Depending on the sort of work you do, you could be paid a lot more in the private sector for doing a similar job. As an example, there is a job currently listed on the Job Centre Online website that I have the qualifications and skills to apply for, which pays £7k a year more than I currently earn working at the civil service. However I'm not going to apply for it because the other benefits of working in the civil service (pensions, possibility of internal transfers for skills development, possibility for internal promotion, etc) outweigh the extra money in my eyes. However this is not the case for everyone.

    Aside from salary (which I realise isn't always as generous as in the public service), private sector workers often also have other benefits that many public servants do not, e.g. overtime, bonuses, commission, alternative working patterns, less stringent sickness policies, to name but a few. Plenty of private sector workers I know wouldn't dream of joining the civil service because they would have to give us their company-provided Blackberry and/or car and their annual bonus (often thousands of pounds).

    I've worked in both sectors and quite frankly I can see that there are currently benefits to both. However if you start pealing away the civil service benefits one layer at a time (which is, let's face it, probably the government's long-term goal), all you're left with is a dull 9-5 job with mediocre pay. Personally that's not what I'm after in life and so I'll take whatever steps I feel are appropriate to try and prevent that in whatever small way I can.

    If you feel differently and you think the deal that public sector workers get is so wonderful, there's nothing to stop you applying for a job on the next round of recruitment (now that the freeze has been lifted).

    The crux of the matter here is that you're more than welcome to disagree with me (and the thousands of other public sector workers across the UK) but I'm afraid that private sector workers crying "woe is me" doesn't particularly garner my sympathy and it isn't going to make me feel guilty about my decision.

    Also, in response to your questions:

    1. I'm not forgetting it, I'm simply counting it as a benefit to my contract of employment. I didn't make the rules, I just signed up to them. I used to be a private sector worker and didn't begrudge my tax going towards such things then. Quite frankly I have more of a problem with my tax going to benefit cheats and the like. You've got to pick your battles.

    2. "Still" may be the operative word in that sentence, but I won't even be able to think about retiring for the next 30+ years - who knows what the situation will be then. We have an ageing population and our economy isn't exactly the most stable thing in the world - seems to me like upping the retirement age further would be a logical step at some point down the line. Just (cynical) speculation.

  3. As a PRIVATE sector worker, I totally agree with the strike action. It would take an essay to explain the ins and outs of why I believe this to be the case but in summary:

    It is not the public sector that needs to be streamlined to the point where it's balancing society on a knife edge, it is the private sector that needs to get it's house in order. Not just in this country but around the world. Sadly, it won't do that unless there is push back from the very thing that fuels it - the workforce and it's democratic representation - aka the government - so if the government is willing to rearrange itself to facilitate stupidity from the private sector then we're all screwed (and not just for pensions)... no matter what sector we work in. If industrial action is needed to remind the government of their real priorities then so be it.