On Wednesday 30th November 2011, many public sector workers walked out in force, protesting against the woeful future of their pensions. In these hard times we may be able to sympathise with these disgruntled workers and their fight against the current government with their cutbacks hitting people where it hurts most: in their vulnerable old age. The cause, many would agree, is a worthy one. However, these strikes fail on a number of levels and are the wrong strategy in a country verging on another recession and with a crumbling coalition government.
Striking as a process for change is, historically, ineffectual. No U-turn in government policy has been enacted due to civil disobedience. Even the Suffragettes’ struggle for the female vote, although a commendable and logical cause, served only as a headline-grabbing publicity stunt. It took the First World War and millions of strong, hard grafting women in factories to show the patriarchal government that they deserved to be taken seriously. Every strike and protest since then has not changed the government position in any measurable way. In some cases they have caused a detrimental effect. Even the militant and arduous miners’ strike in the 1980s drove mining families into abject poverty and ultimately led to the irreversible closure of mines up and down the country, thousands of job losses as well the strengthening of the government standpoint, enabling their re-election for a decade. This strike also ended at the cusp of a recession. The miners’ struggle certainly did not cause the recession but it would not have helped the state of the nation, crippled with debt, mass unemployment and social unrest. Having a strike at the edge of another recession is making an already dire situation even worse for a public suffering from high inflation and savage cuts to services.
What is the alternative to strike action? All adults have the power to change the government’s mind with the most effective weapon: their vote. This is a gift from democracy that people rarely use, yet they are ready to risk disruption and public safety by walking out of their jobs in protest. In the last general election, the voter turnout was 60%, the majority eschewing a pension protecting, worker-friendly Labour government. That still left one third of the country who weren’t that bothered who came to power. Now, if the strikers and their many sympathisers wanted justice and fairness they should have voted for it at the ballot box. It’s no use electing a Tory-led government, a party that advocated massive cuts in spending long before the general election and then trying to shut the door on them after they have galloped into their first year of governance. As well as the general elections, there are also the local elections, where the voting public can elect councillors who have even more tangible effects on their wages, pensions and monthly outgoings. Unfortunately voter turnout for these is even worse, being as low as 20% in some areas. It seems like the country is reticent to speak up until it is far too late. However, a potential four years until the next general election may seem a long time but retirement will be even further away for most disgruntled employees, enabling them to gather strength, regroup and vote out the offending government, finding a party who will look after their interests.
The strikes are also are a fairly blunt way of targeting those in power who are able to correct the perceived injustice. Yes they are affected but so is the rest of the country who are relatively blameless in the whole affair (voter apathy aside). We are left without rubbish collection and, in some cases, public transport- maybe only minor inconveniences- worth it for the struggle of hard pressed workers against an unfair system? Possibly. However our children are without teachers, yes for a day but education is precious and each day of learning is sacred. Even more sacrosanct are human lives. Being left without a fully functioning fire service and hospital staff even for a day is at best irresponsible and at worst downright lethal. If the (entirely justified) legal bar on police and prison officer strikes were to be lifted, would we support them too, risking lawlessness, rioting in the streets and mass jail breakouts- even for just one day?
As has been proved throughout human history, two wrongs do not often make a right. Strikes do come from good intentions and are a worthy cause, helping those lucky enough to have a salary-linked pension scheme to get a better deal when they retire, but they are obtuse, ineffective and misdirected. However admirable the cause, this wrong course cannot change the even bigger perceived wrong of a coalition government hell bent on cutting spending where it hurts most.