“Listen, we are reasonable people, we want to negotiate. But in order to negotiate you have to take a loaded gun away from our head.” John Clarke is a teacher of twenty-five years, and he’s fed up. On Thursday, like hundreds of thousands of other public sector workers, John went on strike to protest over proposed reforms to public sector pensions.
In Parliament Square, John told me that public sector workers like him were more than willing to talk to the government over pension reform. But he also made clear that yesterday’s strikes were about sending out a signal that teachers and other state employees were not willing to be pushed around. “We will talk about it”, he said, “we talked about it in 2006, 2007 and we’re willing to talk about it now. We know some adjustments have to be made but what they’re proposing – work longer, pay more, get less – that isn’t a deal.”
…not many people in the private sector enjoy pensions…
The government sees long term structural reform of public sector pensions as unavoidable and today’s action was criticised as premature. The Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, speaking on the Today programme, said that “you cannot continue to have more and more people in retirement being supported by fewer and fewer people in work.” He added that “not many people in the private sector enjoy pensions like [that]” and called on union members not to jeopardise on-going talks.
But teachers I spoke to on the street rejected accusations that their demands were unreasonable and denied that they were harming pupils’ education by taking action. “We work very hard”, said one, a young female teacher from Cheam High School, who didn’t want to be named. “We’re not militant. We’re not saying by striking today we’re going to completely change their minds. We just want them to know they have to listen.”
…everyone I spoke to seemed moderate, reasonable but utterly determined to be heard.
Although much of this morning’s press devoted itself to portraying teachers as divisive neo-Scargill figures, and while the strike inevitably attracted some of the usual bunch of Socialist Worker vendors, trust fund anarchists and the odd lunatic, everyone I spoke to seemed moderate, reasonable but utterly determined to be heard.
Unusually for the profession, both state and independent teachers voiced their displeasure this afternoon. John joked that the government was “fanstastic” as it had “united the teaching profession” in opposition to its proposals. Joking aside, such a partnership between factions traditionally at loggerheads, coupled with the turnout of members from the usually moderate union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), points to an entire profession at risk of feeling undermined. John was joined by a friend from an independent school, who argued that while few of her colleagues had ever taken action before, “we have to defend ourselves.”
In spite of such moderation on the part of those striking today, support for the action seemed too much for a Labour party desperate to lose the ‘Red Ed’ tag foisted upon its leader, Ed Miliband, upon his election last September. Although this morning he called the government’s approach to the unions “high handed and arrogant”, Labour’s top brass has repeatedly refused to give its blessing to the strikes, much to the dismay of both senior figures in the party and those taking in Parliament square today.
…it is already getting worse…
“I’m a Labour party supporter,” John told me. “I have been for years. And I can understand their rhetoric which says, ‘This could make things worse’. But actually, it is already getting worse, and will continue to do so if we don’t take a stand at some stage.” He urged the Labour leadership to “get on our side and actually support us on this.”
His views were echoed by another striker: “I don’t really think of Labour as any kind of political party anymore”, she said. “They’re so unimportant, so small on the radar. I’m not surprised.”