This is a guest post by Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union
When union members decide they want to strike, the media and government usually respond by perpetuating untrue stories. This time is no different. We have heard that the strike has no support from an inconvenienced public. We have heard that public sector pensions are gold-plated. We have heard that trade union leaders, like me, are undemocratically holding the country to ransom.
So let me start by dispelling these myths. It’s simply not true that the strike has no support. Yesterday, the BBC reported that 61% of the public is in favour of the strikes – that’s despite condemnation from nearly the entire mainstream media and without support from a single front-bench politician. I believe this is because people sympathise with the reasons for the strike: they’ve seen their living standards get squeezed while the rich get richer. They look at the teachers, lollipop ladies, and civil servants marching and then they look at the millionaires in cabinet, and they know which side to support. But it’s also because the labour movement consists of seven million people. Everybody in this country knows someone in a union, and most people know someone who is striking. Trade union members aren’t some inconvenient troublemakers making life hard for the public: they are the public. That’s another reason why the strike has so much support.
The second great myth is that public sector pensions are gold-plated. The government has been remarkably successful in convincing people that this is true. But it isn’t. The average public sector pension is only £5,600 a year, and it’s much less for women. If you want a definition of gold-plated, try the average CEO’s pension of £175,000. Why aren’t MPs outraged about that? At Unite, we want to fight for fair rights for everybody, not accept cuts in already modest pensions because the private sector isn’t good enough. We want the private and public sector to offer their employees better working rights, not use discrepancies to justify a race to the bottom.
Finally, to union leaders. A union is a democratic movement which works from the bottom up. Unite is striking because our members have told us they want to strike, not because we have told them they have to strike. Anyone who thinks I’ve forced our members to get out on the streets simply doesn’t understand the strength of feeling which has led to this strike in the first place. Nobody takes striking lightly, nobody wants to lose a day’s pay, but our members understand what is at stake. Our members are ready to fight. This isn’t just about the pensions of the strikers; it’s about the pensions of our children and grandchildren. This is about safeguarding a basic principle of fairness: if you give your working life to a job, you should receive a just pension when you retire. We cannot allow the government to take that important right away for no good reason.
For many of our members, the strike will be a new experience. They may be feeling nervous or shocked at the negative response from the government and media. That’s why solidarity is so important, and why UK Uncut’s Solidaritea is such a great idea. It’s a chance for non-striking workers to share the fight. The private and public sector needs to come together to strive for a fairer future for everyone. After all, as George Osborne once said, we are all in this together.