Opinion: This strike will prove to be destructive and divisive

A march through King's Lynn Town centre took place by Unison and other union members on a day of str

A march through King's Lynn Town centre took place by Unison and other union members on a day of strike action. Picture: Matthew Usher, - Credit: Matthew Usher

Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers took industrial action.

Teachers walked out and saw schools closed resulting in parents having to make alternative arrangements for their children or even take a day off work – without pay themselves. And fire fighters and civil servants also took action.

It is so often the case when public sector workers take industrial action that service users are inconvenienced, whether that is with school closures, operations cancelled in hospitals or local authority services halted when council workers strike.

Going on strike is one of the freedoms we uphold in this country, and without taking such action workers – whether employed by the government, local authorities, public bodies, or the private sector – may not have the conditions they have today.

Yet in recent years industrial action has changed – not so much in the way it is staged but its impact.

More recent walkouts by teachers, health workers, local council staff and emergency services are different to the industrial unrest of the past.

This is strike action for the 21st century, industrial action that divides the nation in a way that few other strikes have done.

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Previously, perhaps looking back to the General Strike of 1926, the dock strikes, walkouts by rail workers and the miners' strike of 1984, such action divided the nation on matters on of opinion – people either supported the action or opposed it.

But this action, over public sector pensions, pay and working conditions affects – and divides the nation – in a quite different way.

You either benefit from it financially, or you pay for it, because if public sector workers achieve better pay, working conditions and pensions, it will have to be paid for by the taxpayer.

Obviously, most workers are taxpayers, so those who are on strike will also be funding the cost but they will get a return – a sort of convoluted VC (voluntary contributions).

Whereas those who are not striking will face an impact in tax terms but see no benefit. They may also feel the difference further down the line – not always in their pockets or pay packets with greater taxation but with reduced services as funds are hived off from healthcare or education budgets and channelled into the NHS or teachers' pension pot, for example.

My argument may not be a very popular among certain sections of the working population, but it may help public sector workers understand why those not in that area of employment are finding difficulty supporting the issues or having any sympathy.

It used to be argued that public sector pay was lower than private sector pay but offset by improved working conditions, allowances and better pension arrangements. That, I suggest, is no longer the case.

Under the economic realities of the last five years, pay has been eroded all round – public and private sector workers have found their pay frozen or income shrunk as companies have battled to survive and health and local authorities have faced budgetary challenges.

The watchwords for the pay rises and pensions the strikers seek are survivability and affordability.

Retiring at 65 and dying at 74 was considered a good return a few years ago. Now, a more likely scenario is retiring at 60 and dying at 85-plus which means that pension cash has to last longer, for more people and it has to come from somewhere. That is why the current system is unsustainable, however loudly strikers argue it is.

But that is why there is little evidence of across-the-board support for this action outside of those who work in the affected areas.

The public sector is strong and it has a loud voice because of the sheer numbers of people involved and the power of the trade unions.

But just because people toot their horns as they drive past picket lines, striking workers should not automatically assume that the nation is united in supporting their action. This is action is disruptive (intentionally so), but will divide the nation like no other.