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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Where were the Union leaders when their members really needed them?

Mark Serwotka - head of the PCS
If you want to go on a fruitless search, find a single union leader who uttered any words of warning about the dangers of the government building up so much debt. While you're at it, find a single union leader who expressed any concerns about so many jobs being created that had to be funded by borrowing due to the massive shortfall from tax revenue. Can't do it? Now find a story about union leaders warning about the cuts. Easy isn't it? Welcome to the world of vested interests.

If you have a vested interest in something, you have a very strong reason for acting in a particular way, for example to protect your money, power, or reputation.This is why the unions, and in particular the public sector unions, never complained about the enormous amount of money being showered upon their members. You might ask why they should, after all, that money brought them more power. Yet their role is to represent the interests of their members, and pointing out the dangers of the government getting into such debt would have been in their members' interests.
Why? Think about it this way, the Labour government created something between 750,000 and 1 million public sector jobs. When you get a new job, you may move home, including your family. You may take on a new mortgage or other debts. You may make major changes in your lives linked to the new job you have. All of these assumes your new job is secure. If, however, your new job was being paid for with borrowed money that will have to be paid back at some point then you should know about it as your new job may well not last long. 

But where were the union leaders then? "Be careful - these jobs are being paid for with borrowed money, there will have to be cuts at some point". Or "We would warn our members against making onerous commitments that depend on their income from these jobs that the government can't afford to give out". Nope, none of it. 
I'm not talking about jobs such as teachers or nurses or essential workers. I'm talking about the 'sustainability facilitator' or 'walking co-ordinator' or 'performance change champion' types of jobs that sprang up in every local authority over the past 10 years of so. Each time someone got one of these jobs, the public sector unions got another member. This increased the membership subscriptions and the power of the unions, which is why they were quite happy to cheer the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs that made some contribution to putting the UK into a trillion pounds of debt.
Only now, the axe is falling. Government spending is being cut and the unions are shouting loudly, threatening to 'co-ordinate' their strikes around Easter (this skirts around the illegality of a General Strike). Mark Serwotka - Head of the Public and Commercial Services Union said strikes were 'inevitable' and that "The more of us that stand together against the cuts, the more problems we can create." 

The problem is that the country is a trillion pounds in debt and Mark Serwotka said nothing whilst that was happening. So claiming to stand on the moral highground is a bit rich now. 

I have nothing against unions. Without them, the exploitation of the workforce, in terms of pay and working conditions, would be far worse. 

But I am against self-serving 'have your cake and eat it' leaders who want your money from your pocket to pay their members wages regardless of the financial position it puts the UK into. Had they raised concerns about borrowed money being used to hire workers then I would be very happy for them to be bleating the way they are now about those workers being jettisoned. But they didn't, so I'm not.


  1. Historically debt in the UK is relatively i would like to first point out. I would also like to say union leaders were not asking for jobs as "walking coordinator". The vast majority of jobs were in child protection and famillies lifting people out of poverty and other terrible uses of public funds. Though of course there was some pritty silly uses of money like PFI schemes and PPP schemes whcih cost the government millions perhaps billions more that required.

    Also the subsidisation of virgin trains and other private companies across the economy. The subsidy to virgin trains alone bigger that the cost of running nationalised British rail. And then there was constantly ignored tax avoidance and specially low taxes for the city of London. Now im struggling to find where the unions are being greedy and villainous in all this i must say. Such terrible demands like no pay cuts and things could be construed as truly shocking.

    Than there is the matter of the banks and the huge deregulation which is meant that they were rather unwisely in my opinion bailed out, as opposed to nationalised, to the tunes of billions of pounds.

    Then there is the £120billion cost of trident and the billions spent on the war on drugs and terror. If you take these out of the equation what many union leaders have been arguing against the cost of paying public sector workers explotatively low pay seems less of a problem as to why the country is in debt.

  2. Some very interesting points again. I assume the missing word after 'relatively' is 'low' which is the classic deficit-denial way of somehow comparing a country that emerged from a period of massive economic growth with a large structural deficit to a county that emerged from the destruction of the 2nd world war with a large structual deficit.

    That doesn't make the rest of what you say wrong. In fact you are right that the unions should point out that there are plenty of areas that should be cut before their members' jobs.

    You are also right that there were plenty of important jobs created, although child protection is not a great example. I recently got a CRB check for teaching but if I wanted to coach a local football team and be a scout leader I would need two more - that is ridiculous duplication. But even if it were teachers and nurses who were hired, they were hired using money we didn't have, and were borrowing, and the dangers should have been pointed out to them in their interests.

    Trident, drugs and war on terror are obviously areas where we could save a lot of money. But again I ask you to put your mind around what it is like to govern a country, with the most improtant task to keep your citizens safe. Whatever one thinks of the the Afghanistan conflict and the occupation of Iraq, if you are not prepared to consider what it is like to have the responsibility for the security of your citizens then you will probably never understand why we have a war on terror (this is not to justify either conflict by the way).

    Interesting you think public sector workers have exploititavely low pay. The average public sector worker is paid more than the average private sector worker and has more rights and more job security. Fact.

    The point of my article is that you can't have it both ways - cheer spending and oppose cuts. Boom and bust have winners and losers, sometimes the same people.

  3. What I'm arguing here mainly is that a large public sector is affordable as long as you make other spending descisions on fair taxation and stopping some ridiculous and expensive privatisation.

    My main argument with what you have written is you characterise the union demands as unreasonable when the argued them alongside oppostion to many government descisions that have cost huge amount of money and provided little benefit to the peopel of this country.

    I am prepared to consider what it is like to have resposibility for the security of your citizens but none of these things help the security of our citizens. Far from it in fact they have endangered there security. The invasion of Iraq and afghanistan where propoganda present on a silver plate for extremists. I question whether there was a treat of terrorism towards the UK apart from that by dissident republicans before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You say you are not trying to justify the conflict but you seem to be suggesting they benefited the security of UK citizens which is plainly untrue.

    I give you countless examples, the harsh treatment of those involved in the easter rising was one of the main reasons that the republican movement recieved so much support. The massacre at amritsar in India was a key turning pont in many indians attitudes to british rule. The use of exessive force now and throughout history has led to large increases in oppostion and radicalisation.

    Exploitatively low pay is explotative whether it is or is not less exploitative than someone else's pay. For the hours that nurses and others put in pay is exploitative. Just because people living in poverty in england have a roof over there head and a TV which a chinese sweatshop worker doesnt have doesnt mean they arent living in poverty.

    While bankers are payed millions and people get very rich off inherited businesses or even exploitative businesses they have set up themsleves than yes many of those in the public sector get exploitatively little.

  4. 1) A large public sector is avoidable yes. Is it always desirable? You obviously think so. Why?

    2) Actually I don't think union demands are unreasonable. I think they are absolutely what the unions need to do to protect their workers. I am arguing that the time to protect their workers was also when those workers were about to move to jobs paid for with irresponsibly borrowed money. They cheered the spending, now they are booing the cuts. Is that right?

    3) The conflict in Afghanistan made it difficult for Al-Qaeda to set up training camps for terrorists there, so it did at the start make us safer. Afghanistan was invaded with the permission of the UN. You have to separate it from Iraq, which I agree has caused our security to worsen as you are right it has handed propaganda on a plate. My point was to say that at the time, given the information in front of them, our leaders believed that the situation as it was in those two countries endangered our people. What do you think would have been happening right now if Afghanistan had been left as it was. If Iraq had been left as it was? I'm STILL not saying the decisions were right, but I am saying that those who made the decisions believed they were doing the right thing.

    4) Correct, nurses should be paid more relative to bankers, so should teachers and everyone in "worthwhile" occupations (although bankers put in long hours too, not that that's your point!). As Amartya Sen says, just because you don't live in absolute poverty doesn't mean you aren't in also matters what you have relative to others around you - because relative poverty can be like being in a prison.

    5) Inherited wealth is an interesting one. It's another one of those issues where it seems obvious what to do (make inheritance tax near to 100%) but so maany obstacles to doing it.

    6) Again I would argue that since public sector jobs have higher pay and more job security than private sector jobs it is difficult to justify calling them "exploitative". Are you saying that the head of most London boroughs, paid over £200,000 a year plus bonuses, are exploited?

  5. 1) Yes i think a large public sector is good why? because the public sector is the nhs,schools, rubbish collection, transport, social care, child protection, parks playgrounds. All good things. The public secttor also provides things on the basis of who needs them as opposed to who can afford them and asks how can we help people most as opposed to how can we maximise profit. these two things are often at odds in the private sector. The private sector is also bad at providing some services, for instance previously mentioned fact that government subsidies for virgin trains now are greater than the whole cost of nationalised british rail. Some argue the public sector is inneficient but i say paying slighly less exploitative wages is not inneficiency.

    2)Yes they did cheer the spending but while criticising other uneccessary and over expesive government spending such as Academies, PFI deals, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as trident.

    3)Yes it became slightly more difficult to set up training camps but it provided huge numbers of recruits from the afghan people who saw the actions of british and american soldiers including quite alot of indiscriminate killing. Furthermore these camps have largely remained in the border region or have moved to somalia and yemen. Please don't tell me you are naive enough to think that our leaders though for a minute than Saddam Hussein had WMD's or the very dubious link between saddam and al quaeda. this after numerous full access independent weoapon expections. The only leg to stand on here is a argument that oil contracts gained have bee economically lucrative in which case you are suggesting that all the cost and 100,000 civillain deaths not to mention those killed as a result of the religious tensions stirred up by the USA and UK where worth that and that thet is resposible goverance.

    5) Obstacles like the fact that Cameron and half of his cabinet look to gain inherited wealth.

    6) This is why i said "many" not all of course there are some managers etc in the public sector on rudiculous pay.

  6. 1) In theory you are absolutely right about the public sector. All those things it offers are unarguable and we in this country are very lucky to have them. But a large public sector may mean something different to you than it does to others. To others a large public sector provides things universally when it should be means tested (e.g. child benefit, Winter Fuel payments to millionaires). It is when on top of the nurses are 15 layers of management paid a large amount and all needing to create regulations and rules that justify their existence. It is the 'non-jobs' that I have mentioned earlier. The public sector is at its best when it helps people and those who work within it actually try to do that. This does not always happen.

    2) Academies and PFI deals cannot be called government spending. In fact their entire purpose was to build public infrastructure without spending public money. The private sector actually provides the money up front. Unions opposed them because they meant the privatisation of public services which is a completely different issue (and just as important). Unions did complain about unnecessary spending in other areas but it was more about ideological opposition to the wars than about the spending.

    3) Iraq. I've taught an A2 course on global politics and tried my hardest during that time to find a theoretical explanation of the invasion of Iraq. It's almost impossible. However, it's also difficult to find people prepared to think about both sides of the issue. Some will say we had to attack Iraq and go on about terrorists and Saddam being 45 minutes from attacking us and not listen to any reason. Some instead will say that it was all about oil and killing muslims and not listen to any reason. I am still reading as much as I can about it because I want to try and understand how such a collosal mistake was made. I'm sure you have read and heard a lot of things about Iraq, and I have a feeling you're in the latter group and I'm not sure you'll listen to reason. I can only ask that you read Tony Blair's autobiography from Chapter 13 to the end of Chapter Chapter 15. You don't have to buy it, get it in a library or read it in Waterstones. In it he sets out explanations for the decisions he made and addresses the accusations made against him (e.g. it was about oil). Have you read Hans Blix's report to the UN 27th January 2003? Have you seen any of the evidence placed before politicians in this country about Iraq, WMD or anything when they made the decision? At least read the bit of Blair's book. It won't change your mind, but you will at least understand a lot more why he made those decisions instead of resorting to potentially libellous statements about human beings with a lot of pressure on them. I also think you need to separate Afghanistan from Iraq because they are very different conflicts and one was supported by the international community.

    4) Given that before the Iraq invasion the Shi-ite majority in Iraq were barely allowed to worship it isn't surprising there were religious tensions afterward. They were completely underestimated by the US/UK yes. You haven't denied that most of the 100,000 civilian deaths were Muslims killed by Muslims and I think the point you make is that had Saddam not been removed then those deaths wouldn't have happened. You're probably right. Can I ask though, what do you think might have happened had Saddam stayed in power?

  7. 5) True, so do most of those who fund the political parties stand to gain from inherited wealth. That's why just after George Osborne said in 2007 he would raise the threshold to £1,000,000 the Labour Party said they would raise it to £650,000! You will also find, as I have mentioned in my tax avoidance article, that even the most left wing politicians have complicated inheritance tax avoidance schemes in place. Some will argue it is an incentive to work hard as you can provide for your children and their children. Others will argue it maintains inequality and encourages generations not to contribute to society anymore.
    6) You're right, you did say many. The problem is that there are three types of people in society. Those who live entirely off the state without contributing anything (e.g. on benefits), those who contribute to the state and get paid by it (e.g. working in the public sector) and those who pay for both to happen (e.g. working in the private sector). I think from what you have written before that you believe in nationalisation? If not of the whole means of production then of most of it? You do know that's been tried before don't you? Certainly we seem to need a better mix (as I talk about in my article on BAA) but you have to understand that when you work for the public sector you get far better terms and job security and in return you don't get paid as much. That's partly because each penny paid to a person can't be used to build schools, hospitals and road (and, sadly, the Iraq War)

  8. 5) Yes as the ruling class is intrinsically linked to the political parties they both benefit from donations to the wealthy, but that says more about our democracy than anything else. Also people are already incentive enough they become wealthy and they can provide and good life for their children which means that statistically their children and children’s children are more likely to prosper.
    6) The first group you talk about is small and if mostly as a result of the neglect of some areas in the country. I believe in the current capitalist economy we should nationalise key things that tend to become natural monopolies and key infrastructure for the country. I however believe that the workers who create the wealth should control the means of production. I know a state capitalist bureaucracy has been tried before but under very different conditions.

  9. My point 1-4 wer lost I will do them again when i get time

  10. this has been a long time coming but i have been too busy to reply sooner

    1) Cutting the layers of managers and means testing benefits would not be a bad things but this is not what the conservatives see as a large public sector. Ultimitaley there reforms of the NHS look to be more expensive and in fact take a step on the ladder to privatisation. The class that the conservatives represent and the make up of the party tells you all they need to know, they want to reduce the size of the public sector and if that means handing over public assets to there members and donors than they are perfectly happy. “The public sector is at its best when it helps people and those who work within it” not when in the hands of people who by there very nature want to make a quick profit.
    2) Academies and PFI are government spending, the huge amount which has to then be payed by the government to private firms. They are as uneconomical as renting in the long run compared to buying a house if not worse. They are usually run over budget and low quality thanks to a private firm needing to make a profit. As for academies, a firm puts in a nominal fee of £1 million or so, the government often builds a new building over the top of a perfectly good building costing millions and millions. Then they pay a firm to run a school, away from and accountability from the council and at a great cost.
    3) I am prepared to and have looked at both sides of the issue, I am also lucky enough to have studied significant history to put the Iraq war into some kind of context. Continued weapons inspections found no weapons and the war was clearly rushed in not because of the danger of attack but because of the lack of weapons making it the case that if too much more time continued it would have became clear there would be no WMDs. Saddam for one had no reason to attack Britain he wasn’t as implied connected to al Quaeda. The point is the evidence was false and was not questioned, given the USA hugely extensive intelligence network it seems very unlikely they didn’t know there were no WMDs. If you look at the political reasons, a foothold in the middle east, secure oil supply key for any American politician to maintain power. Then we have “inconsistencies” in Blairs evidence to the Chilcot enquiry. Hans Blix advised the UN Security Council that while Iraq's cooperation was "active", it was not "unconditional" not "immediate". Iraq's declarations with regards to weapons of mass destruction could not be verified at the time, but unresolved tasks concerning Iraq's disarmment could be completed in "not years, not weeks, but months". They posed no immediate threat, in time it would have become completely clear there were no WMDs. This information coming from the UN a organisation fairly well known for its US domination.The afghan war was also for clear political reasons, if not why didn’t we also invade Somalia and other countries linked to al Quaeda.

  11. 4) 4) If you look at the historical context of conflicts which have involved the UK there I often one common denominator, and there key reason to justify invasion and occupation religious tension. This happened in Ireland and India among other countries in colonial Africa. This is not a crazy conspiracy but clear british army tactics if you studied these areas you would draw the same conclusion. Therfore almost all these deaths are fairly directly attributed to US and UK invasion. Then there is those permanently defigured but the use of whit phosphorous an illegal substance under international law and also birth defects and cancer cases caused by the use of depleted uranium. Now I wont even go into the human right abuses carried out but British and American soldiers. Iraq would have remained a stable country without the invasion. Saddams regime would eventually fall as many of these dictatorships in the middle east currently falling, ad supported by the UK and USA despite human right abuses and being dictatorships because they are friendly to USA, and then would be able to prosper through all revenue which will now find its way out of the country to the pockets of multinational companies.

  12. I'm going to hazard a guess at why you suddenly became busy and say I hope your A2 exams went well! I may be wrong but that's the problem with you being anonymous!! Anyway - all good stuff you've written and I'll reply soon.

  13. Ok let's start with a question. The working class of this country voted overwhelmingly for the Conservatives in May's election over the Labour Party. Does that mean the Conservatives represent the working class? Or are you arguing that it happened because of the poor state of the Labour Party? Or would you say that it happened because there isn't a mainstream party that properly represents the interests of the working class?