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The ‘One Big Question’ the Media Isn’t Asking About Public Sector Strikes
Coverage of the current wave of strikes frame them as a problem to be solved by crackdowns, with few questions asked about the real cause.
"We have one big question this morning,” the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg began on her Sunday morning programme yesterday.
“What is the government doing right now to stop strike chaos for us all?"
Kuenssberg’s introduction was typical of how news organisations are framing the current wave of industrial action spreading across the UK.
In most cases, this industrial action, or ‘strike chaos’ as it’s inevitably described, is framed as the problem to be tackled, with the Government and opposition parties challenged to explain how they will stop this inconvenience posed to the rest of “us”.
Inevitably this leads to discussions about the army being ‘brought in’ and ‘tough new laws’ being drafted to withdraw the right to strike. Meanwhile few questions are asked about whether such laws can be justified, or whether they will even tackle the actual root causes of the problem.
In some respects these sorts of questions are justifiable. Industrial action is, by its design, disruptive and it is the responsibility of politicians to explain how they can avoid it.
Yet by almost always framing it in this way, we are implying that it is the industrial action itself, and the people who are taking it, that is the problem, rather than the policies and individuals who have actually caused that action to take place.
A Low-Wage Economy
And in the case of the current wave of strikes, the cause is quite clear.
In most parts of the public sector, pay has been significantly cut in real terms since the Conservatives came into Government. Since 2009, teachers’ wages have been cut by around 10%, while nurses’ wage have fallen by around 5%. Big cuts have also been made to the pay of police officers and the fire and prison services
As a result, many public sector workers are being forced to live on poverty wages, with a quarter of all hospitals now running food banks for their underpaid nurses.
It’s worth saying that the current Government has no mandate for such a reduction in basic living standards for public sector workers. Over multiple elections the Conservative Party has promised a “high wage economy” and yet wages have instead been frozen, or cut, in real terms for most workers for more than a decade.
And as wages have gone down, vacancies have gone up. Schools and hospitals across the country are now experiencing massive problems recruiting staff to what are increasingly significantly underpaid professions.
As anyone who has visited an accident and emergency centre in recent months can tell you, this combination of low wages and chronic understaffing is causing a serious deterioration in our public services, which in turn is causing a further exodus of staff.
It is this fundamental issue, rather than the existence of ‘militant unions’, or the absence of oppressive anti-strike legislation, that is the real cause of the current wave of “strike chaos”.
It is also an issue that raises serious questions about levels of tax, redistribution, and the sort of public services, we should be able to expect while living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
But right now ministers not only don’t appear to have an answer to any of these questions, but they are not even being asked them in the first place.
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