Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Huge love and support for all my friends and former colleagues on strike today. Yesterday's Autumn Statement proved that the coalition won't be happy until it's returned us all to the Victorian era, where support for the poor and needy is dependent on the partisan sympathy of the elite (welcome back, the "undeserving poor") and where working people have no security or protection. 

I supported those in the private sector whose pensions were raided, whose schemes were shut down or made much worse; just because I wasn't immediately affected didn't mean that I sat there thinking, "I'm alright, Jack, I've got my nice public sector pension waiting for me." (which is the corrollory of some of the "Well, I haven't got a decent pension, so why should you have one?" comments I've been hearing recently).

In case no-one noticed, the public sector unions were prevented from taking action in support of you because of the "reforms" of the last Tory government. Sorry.

Today's action may be primarily about pensions, but it's about so much more. Snuck out yesterday was the abandonment of the TUPE regulations which (allegedly) offer protection to terms and conditions of public sector workers whose jobs are transferred to a private provider. Those of my former colleagues involved in the Learner Support debacle will know that the TUPE regulations aren't worth much, but they are a small buffer against exploitation. 

On transfer from the council, we were denied permission to retain our local government pensions, which now sit there as deferred benefits until we're 65 - sorry, 66 - no, sorry 67......... We can do nothing to help ourselves on this one - we can't even agree to the government's terms and contribute more for longer and get less - we just have to sit tight and hope that too many current members don't pull out of the scheme and make it unsustainable. 

Within a year of transferring out, I found myself demoted as part of a "restructure", the catch-all way for TUPE to be undermined. Within two years of transfer, I'd been paid off to make room for some more call centre staff (mostly unemployed graduates, with loans to pay off) on minimum wage. I relied on UNISON to make sure I didn't get ripped off as part of this process (as I had a few years earlier, when the council had ignored the fact that workplace bullying had driven me off sick and tried to instigate capability procedings against me (the bully, you might wish to note, was eventually sacked for inappropriate behaviour in a completely unrelated set of circumstances). 

For these reasons, if no others, I am fully behind today's action. The union protected me when I was vulnerable, so I have a duty to support those who are still vulnerable.

If the private sector (and by this, I mean ordinary workers in the private sector, not the so-called "wealth creators) has lost out in pay/pensions, etc over the last 30 years, it's because it has become de-unionised. Like the young women who describe themselves as "post-feminist" and then decry the fact that they are still discriminated against, many people towards the end of the 20th century convinced themselves that unions were an anachronism; that we had won all the battles. In the good times, this was a persuasive argument, although in hindsight it was clearly wrong.

My great-grandfather, a master baker, was sacked for suggesting that he and his fellow workers should be paid for the extra shifts they were asked to put in to provide the Navy with bread for the fleet putting in at Dover. My  (Tory) father worked all his life in the private sector, but was a member - and steward - of his staff association (GMB-linked, if I remember rightly). He knew that if you didn't have representation, you were vulnerable.

It is perfectly clear now, that the battles are far from won. The coalition is intent on wrecking civil society, and returning us to the conditions that made Dickens so "righteously indignant" (the same righteous indignation that Michael Gove, without a hint of irony, so admires!). Instead of support from the state, all but the independently wealthy will have to rely on the goodwill of charities (Job Centres are already referring people to food banks) and corporations.

Instead of being run by elected, accountable local authorities, schools will be privatised (and make no mistake, that's what academy status is) and run by unaccountable private 'sponsors', many of which seem to have a (sometimes dubious) religious background. that's bad news for those of us who do not want our children indoctrinated and who welcomed the transfer of state education provision from church to state.

The NHS, widely found by independent studies to be one of the most cost-effective health systems in the world, is being sold off to Lansley's business associates, at anenormous cost in "restructuring"

For those who think public sectors are overpaid/lazy/do non-jobs, etc, or that it costs 'too much' to run local councils, just watch how much more it costs once council services are handed to the outsourcing corporations. And this doesn't go on wages for the staff, it goes to senior managers and shareholders. Capita is making healthy profits in the midst of the worst austerity in (almost) living memory, on the back of its multiple government contracts. And this at a time when hundreds of small (private) businesses are struggling to keep afloat (especially if they relied on council contracts for their business!).

The difference between the laissez faire economies of the industrial revolution and today, though, is that those who made enormous fortunes out of their workforce at least had some level of guilt about it and used philanthropy to redress the balance a little. Today, the multimillionaires see no reason why they should give anything back. Hell, they don't even pay the tax they're supposed to contribute! Laissez-faire, too, meant that governments, largely, did not intervene - this government is actively promoting the looting of the public sector.

So today, I am not merely supporting my colleagues in the public sector, but hoping that this action, supported by 60-70% of the public (when was the last time a public sector strike had that level of support?), will show that the people of this country are not the apathetic, unthinking consumerist drones the coalition believe and hope them to be. It is not public vs private, it is the super-rich vs the rest of us. This is looking increasingly like Class War - the rich really hate us, don't they?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Getting Through

Having a conversation yesterday morning about the upcoming 'Austerity Christmas' we're going to have.

My eldest daughter has high-functioning autism (not an Asperger's diagnosis, but she has no learning difficulties other than the anxiety/behavioural issues which prevent her accessing the curriculum on a regular basis). She's almost 14, and capable of quite sophisticated and nuanced discussions about current affairs (apart from those times when all we can elicit from her is a torrent of expletives and slamming doors when we say something she doesn't agree with*).

We discussed with her the fact that I have given up work to ensure that she can maintain her mainstream education, which has pretty much halved the family income over the last 2 years, and that with her dad employed by a local authority, our one income has been frozen for the same period. Next year, he will also lose several thousand pounds due to a job evaluation which downgraded him because he doesn't "deal with the public", which is clearly more important than, say, collating all the data which ensures the authority draws down the correct funding (Me, I'd have thought both functions have equal value, but that's what happens when local authorities buy in to the 'service economy' model - style over substance). As a result, we told her, we will have to be a lot more careful with our expenditure.

M: "You need to get a job, mum"

Me: "I'm trying to get a job, but there aren't that many around and I can't get a job if I'm going to be called out on a regular basis because there's a crisis at school. I'm no good to an employer if I'm always having to take time off or leave work at short notice. It needs to be something that's home-based, so I can work around you, and it needs to be term-time only, as there's no viable childcare."

M: "Well, I'll start to behave, then."

Me: "But you can't always help your behaviour; it's your autism, and it's unpredictable. 

[We did both work full-time during her primary school career, and it nearly broke us. Despite a family-friendly employer and remarkably supportive managers - at least before I was outsourced to the private sector - it was incredibly difficult to sustain. I came to hate Caller ID - seeing the school's number come up brought me out in a cold sweat. It still does, but at least now I don't have to go cap in hand to a boss and ask for permission to disappear - again.]

OH: "There have only been 3 days in the last 2 years when your mum hasn't been available, and on 2 of those, I've had a call from school and have had to leave work to come and take you home. Do you see why it's so difficult for mum to find a suitable job?"

She didn't. Sometimes it's like trying to have a reasoned argument with a government minister.

Hey! Maybe instead of stacking shelves in Tesco on unpaid workfare, there's a future job opportunity for her as an ATOS assessor - she has at least as much knowledge of her medical/psychological condition as they do and has the necessary rigidity of thinking. She probably has too much empathy, though.

* On re-reading this post, I think she could also have a career as a politician - that sounds very much like Cameron response.