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December 2, 2011 / politicsbitesize

Public versus Private

Public sector workers on strike, 2011. Taken by N Hall on Flickr

On Wednesday 30th November 2011 millions of teachers, health and transport workers and other public sector employees went on strike over shoddy pension deals and wage freezes. Whilst the strike was heralded by those involved as the biggest day of industrial action since the 1979 Winter of Discontent, at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron, suggested it was a ‘damp squib’.

In England and Wales 16,300 schools closed – 76 % of the total – and in Scotland 33 out of 2,700 state schools were shut due to the strike action. Members of the RMT who were a part of the striking masses saw their actions bring the Metro system to a complete halt in London. Although around 85% of NHS staff went to work, nearly 7,000 routine operations were cancelled as well as tens of thousands of appointments. In Westminster 146,000 Civil Servants walked out for the day, including a small group of Downing Street staff. Heathrow Airport wasn’t as affected by the strikes as predicted, but this was due to the drafting in of other public sector workers who weren’t striking. About a third of all council staff in England and Wales joined the cause, which, according to the Local Government Association, equated to about 670,000 people.

From the figures quoted above it is clear that disruption to public services in the UK was pretty high. But why did this strike action occur and why was it only the public sector that got involved? For a number of years now the debate surrounding the differences between the public and private sectors has gained momentum, with one side pitted against the other. And, in all fairness, why should those who work in the private sector pay, the pensions of those in the public sector? There is currently a suggestion by government ministers (themselves public sector workers) that public sector pensions are unsustainable and unaffordable, but this is simply not true.

So, what will public sector workers such as teachers and NHS staff actually get paid when they retire? As an example, an NHS nurse starting on £15,000 a year and ending on £25,000 would have retired on around £16,000 a year, but under the new scheme they will lose £4,000 a year and work longer with less pay (thanks to the proposed pay freeze). In comparison, private sector workers on the same annual income will pay in 10% of their wages and receive pensions of around £8,000 per year. Under the old system the difference between what a private sector worker and a public sector worker would receive as a pension is around half but under the proposed new scheme it would be around three quarters. In some ways then, it seems that public sector pensioners will still be better off than their private counterparts, even after the change.

This is all in stark contrast to what senior civil servants (also public sector workers) can get paid. For example, the Prime Minister earns £142,500 per year and most MPs get £65,000 plus expenses! As a side note, not one MP went on strike on Wednesday 30th November. So, even if the public sector workers who teach our children, tend to patients in hospitals and care homes and clean our streets get a little more than the average private sector worker when they retire, it is a drop in the ocean compared to what the Prime Minister will be getting – let alone all those private sector workers called bankers!

A difference in the pay scales and final pensions of both private and public sector workers is how a Capitalist model of society works. A debate over the disparity between the private and the public sector with one side vilifying the other isn’t going to make a difference to how society is run. In fact, it simply divides us. What needs to be considered is the bigger picture, and a debate surrounding the discrepancies between the pay scales of a nurse (starting on £15,000) who helps save lives and a banker/footballer who simply makes more money for others is what is actually required.

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