An idea to put a stop to those public sector strikes

Don't Work and Fight BackSchools, libraries, the Welsh Assembly and other government offices were shut or operating a reduced service day because of a strike by several public sector unions in protest at their falling wages, increasing pensions contributions and longer working lives.

David Cameron has a totally wizard wheeze to stop all this from happening. He wants to shift the goalposts so that a certain threshold have to turn out to vote in favour of strike action. Oh, Dave, really. If you start questioning the legitimacy of elections with low turnout, many councillors and MEPs would be on a very sticky wicket indeed.

My number 1 idea for stopping the strikes is actually pretty simple. It has been tough in terms of pay and pensions, but I think that would have been easier to cope with if people were actually happy in their jobs. Even at the best of times, the public sector isn’t the greatest place to work. Yes, you get slightly more pay than your average private sector worker, but your working life is not necessarily easy. It’s a long time since I was a civil servant but even then the management was poor, uncreative and unimaginative, there was no team spirit and the goalposts were constantly shifting. One of the first things we had to do on a Monday morning was count up all the work we’d done the previous week and how much work was left over to do. Then those figures were put into a machine and, somewhere around coffee time, it would spew out a bit of paper that told the entire office it was rubbish. And then if you did manage to meet your targets, by some miracle, there was no congratulation. Your target was just raised. There was no place for innovation or creativity or aspiration in a highly hierarchical organisation.

It’s much worse now. Fewer staff, more work, wages falling in real terms. Nurses finding that they are expected to work in wards with actually unsafe staffing levels, barely able to draw breath or even take meal breaks in a 12.5 hour shift and still not being able to deliver the care their patients need. DWP employees finding that their jobs are being de-skilled and outsourced or that their role has shifted from professional adviser actively helping people find work, to being expected to pile sanction and misery on their clients. Teachers are frustrated at the form-filling, target-driven culture which does not meet the kids’ needs. Remember Lucy Fey’s searing letter to Michael Gove as she handed in her notice, unable to deal with what she was being asked to do any more.

In any of these professions, if the stress of the working environment makes you ill, draconian sickness absence policies kick in. I’ve heard stories of even pregnant employees being hassled by their bosses to return to work in some cases when they can barely walk.

Obviously, I would say that people need to be paid a decent wage for the jobs that they do, but, most importantly, giving them job satisfaction and a say in how their workplace is run is even more important. We’ve been all over industrial democracy and employee share ownership for the private sector, why not change the culture of the public sector, too? Obviously you can’t do share ownership but you can listen to your workforce and give them what they actually need to get the job done, treating them like human beings along the way. In any organisation, private or public, that’s the best way to improve what you do. It’s not rocket science.

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* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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15 Comments

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 10th Jul '14 - 8:58pm

    We get paid more than our private sector counterparts? Really, or have you just fallen for the usual lazy media coverage?

    Firstly, comparing average salaries in the public and private sectors gives a false impression, because many of the lower paid jobs got contracted out long ago, and therefore act to reduce average private sector salaries and increase average public sector salaries.

    Second, you might recall that George Osborne was keen to introduce regional pay for the Civil Service, and commissioned a survey to prove that it would save money by allowing salaries to be cut in real terms. And then it went quiet. Why? Because Hays discovered that, even with our supposedly great pensions, we still get paid less than the private sector comparators that they chose.

    My colleagues have experienced a 15% real terms salary cut over the past seven years and seen tens of thousands of jobs lost. Making our workplace slightly better isn’t going to cut it when more and more of them are qualifying for tax credits and taking on second jobs to make ends meet.

    Sometimes, I wonder if Liberal Democrats don’t like public sector workers very much, and this piece simply reinforces that concern…

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 10th Jul '14 - 9:25pm

    Well, I thought I was expressing sympathy for hard pressed teachers, nurses and civil servants, but there you go.

    You have a point on the pay issue.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jul '14 - 9:29pm

    I like public sector workers, Mark. People say we can’t afford their wages and pensions, but it is not that we can’t afford it, it is just that the right doesn’t want to pay for it.

    It won’t be accepted to have tax cuts for billionaires and pay cuts for ordinary workers. We can’t bring back the serfdom.

    When it comes to the article, I agree we need to make their working lives easier. Labour want to introduce CPD logs into teaching, because they have them in the private sector, but it is just another load of box ticking and we should be against it.

    Regards

  • Mark Inskip 10th Jul '14 - 9:38pm

    Always good to understand the ONS methodology before posting because guess what they have considered factors such as those identified by Mark Valladares and and others as well;

    “Using simple averages to compare earnings between the two sectors is often misleading as employees have different personal characteristics that can impact on their pay. For example, there are pay differences because of disparities in the types and skill levels of jobs, employee experience, distribution of men/women, and the location of the job.

    Regression modelling can be used to account for some of these differences. Accounting for sex, age, occupation, region that the job is located in, employment status of full and part time and employment status of permanent and temporary, job tenure and including an adjustment to better reflect bonus payments, it is estimated that public sector employees earned on average 2.7% more per hour (excluding overtime) than the private sector in 2013. This estimate of 2.7% is subject to a margin of error as it comes from survey results. The estimate provided is such that there is 95%
    certainty that from all samples possible the pay gap in 2013 would be between 2.2% and 3.1%.”

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 10th Jul '14 - 9:44pm

    Caron,

    The reason that so many public sector workers went out on strike today is about cuts, both in terms of pay and staff numbers. And by repeating the tired old line that public sectors workers earn more, all the sympathy that you express is undermined in the eyes of all those people who think that civil servants, teachers and the like are overpaid and feather bedded.

    Good governance costs, and if the public don’t want to believe that, they’ll get the public services that they deserve. But it isn’t helped when political parties keep telling them that public sector workers are paid more than they are.

  • It is also worth noting that the ONS salary/wages comparison does not take into account pension arrangements. Separate ONS figures show that 94.5% of public sector employees with a workplace pension are in a Defined Benefit scheme whereas the figure for private sector employees is only 24.0% (74.9% of private sector employees are in a Defined Contribution scheme).

    And the ONS figures show that employer contributions to Defined Benefit schemes average 15.2% compared to only 6.6% for Defined Contribution schemes. In other words many private sector employees get a much worse deal on pensions.

  • Stephen Donnelly 10th Jul '14 - 10:40pm

    From the Economist : Mrs Merkel never tires of saying that Europe has 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its GDP and 50% of its social spending.

    No sustainable long term. Sorry.

  • Peter Watson 10th Jul '14 - 11:07pm

    @Stephen Donnelly “No sustainable long term. Sorry.”
    Why not?

  • So Caron is quite happy to list a whole lot of grievances about what is going on but nonetheless remains full square behind a leader who thinks the coalition is doing a great job.

  • Liberal Neil 11th Jul '14 - 8:35am

    @Frank Booth – yes, Caron, like me, is capable of both being critical of some of the Government’s policies while at the same time believing that it is better that we are in the coalition rather than out of it.

  • Steve Griffiths 11th Jul '14 - 8:35am

    Caron
    ” but you can listen to your workforce and give them what they actually need to get the job done, treating them like human beings along the way. In any organisation, private or public, that’s the best way to improve what you do. It’s not rocket science.”

    Yes, it’s called good management and it comes down to management training. I work for a an Oxbridge college which is in the charitable sector, (so I don’t know whether that makes me public or private sector). I have also spent 20 years in construction industry management in the private sector and received management training on several courses. We were regularly taught that the most successful managers who got the best from their teams, were also good at the ‘soft’ management skills of the sort you describe. I wonder about the quality of the training public sector managers receive, if much.

  • Adam Robertson 13th Jul '14 - 3:34am

    I agree that the majority of the public sector, do a good job. I don’t doubt this for a minute. I had very good teachers, when I was at school.

    However, Mark seems to give the assertion, that the public sector have had it tough. I don’t disagree with this but my father has had to take an 8% pay cut, with a minimalist pension, as well. I stress pay cut not real terms. This was because the business he is working for, was struggling to get orders because of the recession. It is tough in the private sector, even tougher in fact.

    Secondly, in the private sector, there has been a flow of Eastern Europeans, coming into the workplace. I am pro-EU and in favour of the freedom of movement, established under the Single European Act. However, there is real concern that they are depressing wages in the private sector and that the, Trade Unions, are not acting on this. My dad has noticed this in the workplace, he is working in.

  • Jayne Mansfield 14th Jul '14 - 10:59am

    @ Adam Robinson,
    I would have thought that your post was a good argument for stronger unions with more assertive workers.

    What power do workers have when they feel that they are being unfairly treated, other than to withhold their labour?
    Getting different groups of workers to criticise each other when they see their living standards fall seems a clever diversionary tactic to me.

  • SIMON BANKS 18th Jul '14 - 9:12pm

    Well said, Caron.

    The main reason for low public sector morale is not pay but the feeling of being unvalued, of being Aunt Sallies and (especially among the older employees) of the whole idea of working for the public good being sneered at, while management is constantly rearranging the deckchairs in the name of “transformation”, managers get points for making change rather than for any evidence that the change led to better outcomes (other than savings) and an assumption rules that private sector management is superior (until the private sector managers come in and often as not foul things up or, to be fair to them, take about a year to learn how different the environment is with myriad central government rules to follow, and then do a good job for one year before leaving).

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