After the public sector strikes on Wednesday 30th December, there are mixed views on whether Swansea University Student Union was correct in officially supporting the strikes. We’re giving you the chance to have your say; kicking things off with opposing views from Becca Taylor and Pearleen Sangha. 

Was it a good decision for the SU to officially support the strikes? 

Becca Taylor

NO.

Firstly, I don’t believe strikes work, especially under Tory governments. They simply don’t respond to them. Under the years of beer and sandwiches at number 10, of course concessions to please the unions would have been made, but Cameron and his cabinet are just not going to make them off the back of the millions cost to the country by one day’s strike action.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t strike. They have (nearly) every right to, and should they wish to exercise those rights, then go for it. Just saying, don’t expect it to work.

On that note, the SU has every right to support them. A motion was put to the SGM, and passed by a majority to show their support for those on strike. In general, it is assumed that all the part time and full time officers will attend to show their support. If the officers are mandated then it makes sense they should go, but personally, I have no problem with an officer prioritising a full time degree over the part time role, nor do I have a problem if they disagree on a ideological basis.

So that leads me to answer the question – should the SU be supporting the strikes? Really my question is, is it any/much of our business? Yes, we are showing support to our lecturers, but this is their battle not ours. Yes, we need to fight for our futures, but if we have no plans to end up in the public sector, why would I back the strike? Personally, I think there are much better things to be doing with our time.

I also think that with the tiny percentage of students that actually vote on these issues, it’s ridiculous to think we are acting in the interests and on behalf of the majority of students. Most students simply don’t care. I wonder if until we get better responses it is appropriate for the SU to tell the world Swansea students support something that 50 people voted on.

The public sector is a tricky issue. Though it is in many senses invaluable, it does not actually provide any product, and therefore it doesn’t generate an income as the private sector does. The thing is, the public sector is a cost on the private sector – it costs the taxpayer for that free education (which is why I will always support a graduate paid fee for higher education) and that NHS, which none of us would be without but isn’t truly free at all. I don’t deny the good work of doctors, nurses and teachers, but they do not directly bring in money to the country.

Does this mean I think we should get rid of the public sector? Of course not. A downscale might be nice, but that’s for another day.

My favourite word at the moment is perspective. We had it all for a while there. Good pay, good costs, and anyone could get on the housing ladder. But those in the private sector have seen their pensions diminishing for longer than those in the public. And the private sector isn’t all banks, surprise, surprise. It’s the shopkeeper who can’t put as much aside for her retirement as she hoped. The hairdresser who got a job in Oceana because there’s no money left in what she wants to do (that part’s a real life example). The toilet attendee who can’t afford a pension, and finds the strikes almost laughable. It’s my friend who lost five years of pension savings when the company went bust, long before the rest of the country felt anything. It’s any one of the many who were laid off because the work wasn’t there for them to do anymore – where’s their pension?

And what about charities? Their workers are paid very little and offered little to no pension and funds to run their passion to help other people has suffered in the recession we’ve all felt in some way.

The fact is, pensions aren’t completely horrific. Sorry, they’re just not. I had a lovely interview with the VC Richard B Davies a few weeks ago, and he assured me the rates were still very competitive (for Swansea University academic staff). But on that note, and accepting his bias, perhaps we should be even more local that local? The SU recently took a stance that showed they’d learnt direct, local action was more effective than vast, vague, national action. Here the unions should be even more local – don’t yell at the government for the necessary restructure of the pension scheme; fight the Vice Chancellors for pay cuts in their salaries, and extravagant costs and petition them to put those costs back into the pay packets and pensions schemes of the people who keep this University running.

Finally, can we please all get over the Jeremy Clarkson comments? He was obviously kidding! He’s a public sector employee, receiving around £1million annually for his fine broadcasting through the BBC. He’s hardly going to seriously suggest him and his beeb mates should be executed, is he?

And don’t even get me started on Occupy.

Was it a good decision for the SU to officially support the strikes? 

Pearleen Sangha 

YES.

To me, this is an erroneous question.  Not only was it a good decision, but it was vital that our Union support and participate in the industrial action that we saw on November 30th.  This is not about left-wing and right-wing views; this is about the very nature of a trade union and the ideology Unions stand for.

Trade unions were established as a method of organizing workers to achieve common goals.  Whether it was a struggle towards working conditions, contracts, or wages, it’s important to remember that the very core principles of Unions still exist, though the problems have changed as time has passed.

The Students’ Union is a trade union.  True, it may not be a body that represents labourers in the literal sense, but it is the only body on campus that will work on behalf of students and with the students’ best interests at the core of their policy.  If we do not stand in solidarity with other trade unions that represent workers who are directly related to and at the heart of the process we take to receive education, we should not expect anyone to stand up and speak for us.

The issue that sparks unrest is the pensions for public sector workers.  The government is giving us a line that they have orchestrated a negotiation process with stakeholders, i.e. various trade unions, but the fact of the matter is, they have been holding meetings with unions leaders to illustrate a sense of collectivity in this decision making process and no real negotiation has taken place.  As a union, we are supporting the strikes because we recognise:

  • This notion that public sector workers have ‘gold-plated’ pensions is simply untrue.  The real culprits of inequality are the private institutions in which some executives gain 25 times the pension of ordinary employees of the work place.  We should be leveling pensions upwards, not downwards for public sector workers and the government needs to legislate greater control over private sector pensions.
  • The message that the government are spinning in the media is that the cost of pensions will rise and become unsustainable.  This is also not correct.  While there is a slight rise of expenditure in the foreseeable future, it will level out and decline.  In fact, the percentage of GDP that is spent on pensions is already in decline and pensions are becoming ever more affordable.  This is not a question of affordability; it is a question of priority.  The negotiations that took place in 2007 addressed these issues, so where do the priorities of this government lie?
  • If the pension reforms go ahead, the country would face a much larger issue.  People who enter into their contracts will have an option to opt out, as they will recognize that they will be paying more and working longer with no return.  If there is a mass movement to opt out, this leaves pressure on the next generation as the older generation will become dependent on the state.

We stand by trade unions that stood and will continue to stand by our side on issues that affect students across the UK.  Though we have lost many fights, if we did not have the support we needed by our side during the debate over tuition fees and EMA, for example, we would not have gained the momentum and publicity we needed to make serious protest.  There could be the argument that a students’ union should not be fighting in battles that do not directly affect us.  I render that argument void for a number of reasons, including the fact that the campaign we are currently undertaking is to ensure that university workers are being paid a Living Wage. More simply it is because if we do not stand in solidarity with others, should their struggles be defeated, no one will remain to stand in solidarity with us.

Got an opinion on the subject? Make your voice heard and leave a comment below. If you have ideas for the next debate and want to get involved, email thesirenswansea@hotmail.co.uk

Protest at Castle Square, December 30th 2011

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