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Unions are harming their members’ interests with strikes

11 July 2014

Industrial relations experts have said that the latest public sector strikes are unlikely to have any impact on government policy. I don’t think you have to be an ‘expert’ to reach that conclusion.

The last time industrial action led to substantial demands being met was probably back in 1981, when the Thatcher government backed down over a planned programme of pit closures after an NUM strike ballot. And little wonder this was the last taste of success for strikes.

Strikes do little but alienate people. The present set of demands – anger about a rise in the pension age for fire fighters from 55 to 60, a demand for substantially more pay all round and basically the undoing of almost all Michael’s Gove’s education reforms – lack public support.


The job of sorting out the public finances is still not complete. The scale of the task is such that the deficit won’t be closed until 2018/2019 (and, even for this to happen, further reductions in spending need to be found). With wages making up somewhere around a quarter of government expenditure, the case for increasing pay is not an easy one to make. Although they haven’t condemned the strikes, even the Labour Party is not backing the strikers’ demands.

Recent Policy Exchange research shows that wage premiums for public sector workers can be as much as £3,200 in some parts of the country. On average the pay premium for those working in the public sector is about 6 per cent an hour. This is much higher for those on the lowest wages, around 14 per cent higher in the public sector, while those on the highest incomes actually have a pay penalty of around 5 per cent.

If the unions really want to represent their members’ best interests, they should be campaigning for a better system through negotiations not strikes. But, most importantly, they should reassess what they are calling for. National pay bargaining is quite simply unfair. A fair pay deal, and one that can involve substantial pay rises for many public sector workers, is one based on pay related to how good a job someone is doing, and which takes into account the local context.

Polling we commissioned earlier this year found 9 out of 10 teachers think the ‘quality of teaching’ should be a major driver in pay and progression and more than half said they would be more likely to opt to work in a school where pay was linked explicitly to performance if it meant less bureaucracy. Only 6 out of 10 teachers think that ‘years of experience’ should be a major factor in pay.

Some public sector workers probably do deserve to be paid more, but the reality is that on aggregate there is still a substantial pay premium compared to the private sector. If public sector workers want higher wages they should be asking their unions to campaign for more flexible, localised pay structures where pay reflects performance.

Ruth Porter is Head of Economic and Social Policy at Policy Exchange

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  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    “…where pay was linked explicitly to performance if it meant less bureaucracy.”

    OK, so how is performance measured without adding more bureaucracy?

  • global city

    Why are unions still allowed to be overtly political, ideological and even revolutionary?

    Why are organisations present to represent workers rights allowed to exploit this situation to advance anti capitalist agendas?

    Surely there should be an insistence on being apolitical and non-ideological, as charities (used to be)

  • zoid

    i think that britain’s most astute and on the ball daily, the daily mash (!), captured it just right with something along the lines of…. ‘ when the left’s in power, the right keep on turning up for work. when the right’s in power, the left go on strike.’

    it seems to be that the unions will continue their pishing and moaning until we elect a govt that’s acceptable to them. if the british public vote ‘the wrong way’ there’ll be more strikes after the election….

    the wisdom down the pub used to be that voting labour would bring more strikes…now it seems that the unions go quiet when the party they’ve bought is in the driving seat and then are as disruptive as possible when the tories get in….punishing the taxpayer for voting tory

    • GraveDave

      You sound Scottish. So aint you got enough problems as it is?

      • zoid

        how on earth do i ‘sound scottish’ on a pixelated screen? is it my having used a scottish pronunciation as a euphemism to avoid getting put on the naughty step by disqus? if so, then i could use others ya ned/fud…

        true, there are mc.zoids, as well as o’zoids…but i’m english.

        • GraveDave

          Lol, okay. Been watching the fitba btw?

          • zoid

            indeed i have….as for tomorrow ah’ll no be cheerin them argy bawbags…

  • Fraziel

    I think the tory attitude and articles like this are what might just swing me to voting labour after saying i never would. I dont trust labour but at least they arent tory b*stards.To take thousands in pay from low paid workers ,barely surviving as it is, is indefensible. The average civil service pay is 21k , nowhere near the average private sector salary of around 26k. I am on low wages in the civil service, work bloody hard, and have lost around £3500. Its hard to see how some of the lowest paid members of society should be asked to contrubute such large sums towards austerity especially when rich mp’s have subsidised food, drink, travel and housing. The tories will not get a majority at the next election and one of the reasons is how they treat public sector workers. Serves them right too and utterly pitiful when you look at who they are up against.

    • David Lewis

      There is a `Barometer’ in the Spectator this week which shows how completely wrong you are. It is probably online too.

      They give latest ONS figures.

    • zoid

      i’m a public sector worker and i can see that there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed, especially among the top pay grades where i work, along with all the box ticking diversity trainers, policy wonks etc.

  • Winston Burchill

    The FBU is the problem.

  • GraveDave

    Ah, Michael Gove.

    Public sector strikes:The day Michael Gove took his place …

    The Independent ‎- … deliberatelydisruptive act. Michael Gove talking about how bad strikers are… Here he is on strike with the NUJ.

  • Amir

    Read this article about labour’s reaction to strikes:

    • GraveDave

      Last time I tried that it closed my computer down. Terrorist!

      • Amir

        I’ve been told that you are an EDL member. YOU’RE A THREAT. Not me.

  • SonofBoudica

    Judging from what I have seen and experienced in my local authority, the public sector is riven with spanish practices and filled with too many lazy or incompetent people. If every public sector worker did a full day’s work for their pay, we would need far less of them, and could then afford to pay those that work more. Every department and every sector seems to be affected, and those who want to work get fed up of seeing skivers and perennially sick claimants get away with it time after time.

    • dalai guevara

      Britain is the Greece of Northern Europe.

      It finally, finally, finally sinks in.

      • channel.fog

        I assume you mean full of rich parasitic bastards dodging tax for all they’re worth.

        • dalai guevara

          I emphasise the point made by rewording it.
          Of course that will not resonate, hence we can rest assured that the poster at the top was (a) merely ranting incomprehensively or (b) suffers from a severe case of delusion.

    • Fraziel

      The average public sector worker had 0.5 of a day more sick last year than the average private sector worker. Stop talking Daily mail tripe. Where i work there are rigorous demanding work targets and a punitive sick leave regime. You clearly have no idea what you are talking about.

      • SonofBoudica

        “In 2013, the percentage of hours lost to sickness in the private sector was lower than in the public sector at 1.8% and 2.9% [of total working hours or days] respectively”. Source: ONS Report Sickness Absence in the Labour Market 2014. That means that public sector workers take, proportionately, 61% more sick days than the private sector. I think I know what I am talking about. Unless you allege that the ONS is in the hands of the Daily Mail?

  • crackenthorp

    another piece of rubbish journalism, it’s about time journalists were given a periodic exam for competence, not many would pass and this scribe certainly would not

  • Mike Barnes

    What happens if you win and public sector wages are further reduced (a rise lower than inflation is a real cut).

    Will the private sector suddenly start offering massive increases? No, why would it.

    There is no increase in productivity lately and jobs are still scarce with unemployment higher than the long term so there is no upwards pressure on wages anywhere.

    So we’ll just get in a race to the bottom of wages, and that’s before the Beecroft reforms to job security to look forward to if the Tories win outright.

    A new age of executive power and pay cuts all round. Tally ho!

    Do Conservatives have anything at all to offer those who work for a living?

    • SonofBoudica

      Those who don’t like it should try starting a business and creating jobs for other people.

      • channel.fog

        Ah, another one of those poor deluded souls who think businesses ‘create’ jobs. Demand creates jobs.

  • Peter L

    The stated pay gap of 6% seriously understates the financial advantage of working in the public sector. Public sector workers receive better holidays, work fewer hours, have much more generous pensions and, remarkably, take more time off sick.

    The Policy Exchange should recast its calculations onto a Total Reward basis. The result would be interesting!

    As an aside, the headline “Unions are harming their members’ interests with strikes” isn’t universally true. Tube workers on £52k pa for a 35 hour week must be very happy with the result of theirs.

    • SonofBoudica

      Yes, in their pension calculations they never count the lump sum on retirement which they get in addition to, not out of (like the private sector), their full pensions.

  • telemachus

    rise in the pension age for fire fighters from 55 to 60
    This does have public support
    How can we countenance 60 year old firemen trying to rescue Granny from an upstairs bedroom

    • Marmalade Sandwich

      Does have public support? Are you really Ken Livingstone, who was famous for making up facts on the spot? You need to prove what you say. I for one disagree. And I am the only one to have replied. So public is now 50:50 on the issue

      • telemachus

        It was clear by the shouts of support and beeps of a car horn and cheery waves from cars the strikers will have felt a wave of public support. And as firefighters prepare for further strike action, it’s clear the support means a lot to them.

        • Nick

          I wish I had a car which could wave cheerily.

        • Inverted Meniscus

          Comedy Gold, pure comedy Gold. No doubt Labour will be looking to supplement its postal vote by “beeps on a car horn”.

          • Adam

            “beeps on a car horn” ballots…don’t joke, you’ll give the guys in Tower Hamlets ideas…

        • SonofBoudica

          I beep my horn at striking firemen but certainly not in support since the beep is accompanied by two fingers.

      • Des Demona

        Hang on, where’s the author’s proof that they do not have the publics’ support – other than a bold un-evidenced statement?

    • HookesLaw

      I do not mind Firemen retiring at 55 providing their pensions are reduced proportionately. Also that they continue paying NI an any earnings from work they subsequently take on, up to the national retirement age.

      • telemachus

        We are talking about society and the value of key members of society
        We know your precious party believes not in society but I want a good fit motivated workforce to put out my fires

        • MrVeryAngry

          Oh gawd no. Not the ‘key workers’ cobblers. Listen son, everyone that is productive is a key worker. The fire service is in reality an insurance company.

        • Nick

          Do you really think that everyone employed by the fire service climbs ladders? When you get too old for active service you are given a desk job, ‘Twas ever thus. Don’t be disingenuous.

          • Ooh!MePurse!

            Absolutely. Training is another area in which their experience would be important.

        • SonofBoudica

          Nearly anyone can be fit at 60 if they put their mind to it.

          • Fraziel

            Except of course if you develop health poblems as many many people do be it joints your heart or whatever. Honestly, your comment has to be one of the most moronic i have ever read. Are you deliberately making ridiculous comments? I cant imagine anyone deliberately being so stupid unless its just trolling.

            • SonofBoudica

              No, of course nobody can help developing health problems, but the evidence is that, apart from lack of control over eating and drinking, most people are healthier now in their 50s than their forebears. Hence the rising longevity must lead to later retirement.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Who exactly are KEY members of society. And what about the poor buggers who are NOT key members?

    • gerronwithit

      If my midwife wife can be expected to lug 30 stone Heffers many times a night until she is 65 then the poor oppressed night shift sleeping, two job fireman can manage it on the odd occasion as well. Poor ambulance men and women might feel aggrieved as well. Stop sanctifying these indefensible public shirkers.

      • Peter L

        Dead right.

        There are hundreds of applications for every fireman’s job. It’s the best paid, softest number available to manual workers in the country.

        • eclair

          until they’re dead?

    • Andy

      Firemen are bloody idle. They should be redeployed at a certain age and do other jobs. But the pension should be frozen until 65. Actually I would retrain the lot of ’em as paramedics. We don’t need so many firefighters as the number of fires has fallen dramatically over the last 20 years, and yet they resist every effort to reduce their number to an appropriate level.

      • GraveDave

        Goes for the police too. According to the Ministry of Truth, crime is at an all time low.

    • SonofBoudica

      The whole point is that a 60 year old fireman today has the physical attributes of a 50 year old firemen 30 or 40 years ago. I know a fireman who took early medical retirement (bad back) some years ago, and then started work as a builder with no problem carrying heavy loads.

      • Andy

        Could have been a miracle.

    • ButcombeMan

      I am far fitter in my 70s than my father was in his early 40s. some individuals may have to be on restricted duties but the general thrust is correct.When an appliance turns up at a fire or incident it is TEAM. everybody does not have to be a center forward. Of course a 59 years of age firefighter might need to consider giving up his second job.

      Same should be true of Police Officers, stop the scandal of them retiring, collecting pension and lump sum then getting re-employed in almost the same job, by the same Constabulary, minus only the right of arrest.

      It is unaffordable.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Firemen spend most of their time sitting on their capacious backsides.And why should not 60 year old men rescue granny. They’d be of an age. Could be romance?

      • telemachus

        Except at age 60 he will drop her

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      Firemen spend far more time installing smoke detectors, giving fire prevention advice and getting people out of crashed cars than putting fires out.

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