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Workers strike while the ire is hot

The recession may be a receding memory, but its fallout is still being felt.

Today, 28,000 Scottish civil servants will go on strike with a very simple message: "We all need a pay rise." Members of the Public & Commercial Services Union are angry about the erosion of their incomes. The union calculates that real-term earnings have fallen by 20 per cent over the course of the pay freeze and cap they have endured.

Mention of these striking workers, many of them in the Scottish Government and Parliament, is noticeably absent in a statement put out by the SNP, which refers to strikes by one million public sector workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The party insists that independence offers prosperity in place of austerity for public sector workers. It is certainly true that the scale of discontent in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is greater than that registered in Scotland, where pay deals have been agreed for several groups of public sector workers.

However, it is clear that civil servants remain deeply unhappy as a consequence of depressed incomes and are calling on the Scottish Government to act to break the UK austerity pay cap. They have a case.

All strikes cause disruption and inconvenience but, when workers have seen the erosion of their living standards over many years, they are left with little choice but to consider industrial action. Wage freezes and below-inflation pay rises are an expedient way for governments to save money but it is essential that measures which ought to be used in the short term to save money (and jobs), do not become habitual.

The strike north and south of the border has further implications, as it has fuelled calls for greater restrictions on strike ballots. David Cameron yesterday promised to tighten up the rules if the Conservatives are re-elected at Westminster in 2015. Reforms could include minimum thresholds for turnouts and time limits on the validity of votes.

The Prime Minister cited as the justification for his move the NUT ballot on the basis of which today's strike among teachers is going ahead in England and Wales. It took place in 2012, based on a 27% turnout.

A high turnout certainly gives any ballot greater validity. However, the question then arises of where it is fair to set the threshold.

Business leaders and some Tory MPs want it at 50 per cent but that poses uncomfortable questions for politicians, given that many local councillors and MEPs have been elected on considerably lower turnouts than that (no European election has even achieved a 40 per cent turnout).

Can it really be fair that unions are subjected to such restrictions? Mr Cameron's promise smacks of Tory populism.

Public sector, and, indeed, private and voluntary sector, workers, have endured years of spending cuts, erosion of their pay and pensions and redundancies. Government ministers north or south of the border who want to see an end to industrial action must pay heed to their concerns.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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