Unions are harming their members’ interests with strikes

July 11, 2014

Industrial relations experts have said that the latest public sector strikes are unlikely to have any impact on government policy. I don’t think you have to be an ‘expert’ to reach that conclusion.

The last time industrial action led to substantial demands being met was probably back in 1981, when the Thatcher government backed down over a planned programme of pit closures after an NUM strike ballot. And little wonder this was the last taste of success for strikes.

Strikes do little but alienate people. The present set of demands – anger about a rise in the pension age for fire fighters from 55 to 60, a demand for substantially more pay all round and basically the undoing of almost all Michael’s Gove’s education reforms – lack public support.

The job of sorting out the public finances is still not complete. The scale of the task is such that the deficit won’t be closed until 2018/2019 (and, even for this to happen, further reductions in spending need to be found). With wages making up somewhere around a quarter of government expenditure, the case for increasing pay is not an easy one to make. Although they haven’t condemned the strikes, even the Labour Party is not backing the strikers’ demands.

Recent Policy Exchange research shows that wage premiums for public sector workers can be as much as £3,200 in some parts of the country. On average the pay premium for those working in the public sector is about 6 per cent an hour. This is much higher for those on the lowest wages, around 14 per cent higher in the public sector, while those on the highest incomes actually have a pay penalty of around 5 per cent.


If the unions really want to represent their members’ best interests, they should be campaigning for a better system through negotiations not strikes. But, most importantly, they should reassess what they are calling for. National pay bargaining is quite simply unfair. A fair pay deal, and one that can involve substantial pay rises for many public sector workers, is one based on pay related to how good a job someone is doing, and which takes into account the local context.

Polling we commissioned earlier this year found 9 out of 10 teachers think the ‘quality of teaching’ should be a major driver in pay and progression and more than half said they would be more likely to opt to work in a school where pay was linked explicitly to performance if it meant less bureaucracy. Only 6 out of 10 teachers think that ‘years of experience’ should be a major factor in pay.

Some public sector workers probably do deserve to be paid more, but the reality is that on aggregate there is still a substantial pay premium compared to the private sector. If public sector workers want higher wages they should be asking their unions to campaign for more flexible, localised pay structures where pay reflects performance.

This article originally appeared on The Spectator’s Coffee House blog.

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