There are many problems with the Unions’ current tactics in Northern Ireland, but the largest of them is the range of various (and occasionally even competing) demands they are making. The problem with this is it reduces support for any of their case – after all, despite its large size, most people do not work in the public sector and even many who do recognise it is too large and needs significant reform.
There are two specific areas where, it is clear, public sector workers have a case.
This is a straightforward case that the Assembly has not budgeted properly and has left Translink underfunded.
It is a serious problem, because once you begin cutting routes you will only continue doing so – this is, after all, precisely what happened to the railways right across the UK.
Seemingly “unviable” routes are essential to keeping currently viable routes viable. People travelling on viable routes are often doing so to get to connections on the “unviable” routes. Take out the “unviable” (typically peripheral) routes, and it is like taking a table leg from a table.
In addition, those who use public transport are disproportionately those who are working but on low income – the very group who need services most. Withdrawing them will make it harder for people to get to work (or even to take jobs in the first place), harder for people to get to leisure opportunities (making them more inclined to stay in, with effects on health etc) and harder for people to access services themselves (many rely on public transport for hospital appointments, job interviews and so on).
To be clear, Friday’s strike was wrong because it punished the very people with whom the Unions should be building a coalition on public transport funding. However, the basic case stands.
The issue of Teachers’ Pensions specifically is one where Unions have catastrophically failed to make their case.
Pensions themselves are not a legitimate public sector gripe. Public sector pensions were set up in an era of people working from 16-65 and then expecting to live, on average, only another 5-10 years; by the late 2000s, people were working 21-65 and then living another 20 years. There is not enough filling in the sandwich – the final salary pension scheme had effectively become, on average, three times as expensive but contributions into it remained much the same. This meant it had to be subsidised by taxpayers, most of whom cannot dream of the same arrangements (as no company can make the same guarantee with people living so long after retirement), when there were ever fewer taxpayers as a proportion of the population to start with.
However, the arrangement for teachers’ pensions specifically is outrageous. Here, teachers have been let down by the campaign in general because their legitimate pensions issue has been lumped in with less legitimate public sector gripes in general.
The problem is specific: teachers now lose 5% of their pension for every year early they retire. Far from being encouraged to retire, they will have to work all the way to 68; retire even at 60, and they lose nearly half their pension.
This is ludicrous, not only because teaching is not the type of job you can reasonably be expected to keep at for fully 46 years, but because it reduces the gaps in the system for younger teachers to enter (rendering decisions to train too many even more ludicrous, of course).
There is no issue with people being expected to retire later and contribute more – this is, in fact, necessary. The issue is with the outrageous share of the pension lost for every year short of retirement age. To be clear, it is not only teachers who should be enraged by this – young people, again denied access to the job market in key professions, should be furious too.
The Government is indeed doing some mad things – but when we protest, we need to be specific about what they are and about how they can be put right!