Man United: Public-Sector Pensions & A City On Strike

    Image by SecretLondong123, used under a CC license.

[First published in the Morning Star, 01/07/2011]

It’s 8am on a Thursday morning in Manchester’s university quarter, smack in the middle of the summer break. But the streets are far from empty.

Teachers and lecturers stand clumped together on picket lines outside their classrooms, while across the canal librarians, parking wardens, civil servants and others are doing much the same. Manchester it seems is closed for business.

It’s only a slight exaggeration: with literally a third of Manchester’s workforce in the public sector, it’s hardly surprising that the government’s plans to raid public sector pensions has raised a bit of a ruckus. And with clear blue skies, a beaming June sun and the warm glow of camaraderie, it’s obvious people are glad to be out and about. But they haven’t forgotten why they’re here.

*****

I meet Neil Wilson on the steps of Manchester Metropolitan University’s John Dalton Building.

Neil is a tutor in computer-aided design at Manchester College a few blocks away, but says he thought he’d pop over to see how his friends at MMU are going.

He tells me he began teaching just three years ago, after his job at a company designing electronic whiteboards was outsourced to India.

“I thought that would be more stable,” he tells me with a rueful grin.

“You hit your forties, you feel scared. You could freelance but there’s no guarantee: you get sick, you take time off, you’ve got no money. You starve.

“[So] you come along and start working in education because you think it’s got decent pay and benefits.

“And then that’s taken away,” he adds quietly.

I ask him what his finances are like at the moment: the pension itself aside, many of his colleagues are worried how they’ll cope with the impact of increased contributions on their take-home pay.

At present 6.4 percent of their pay packet goes to their pension fund. But the Con-Dems’ fiddling will see that figure rise to between 9.5 and 9.8 percent by 2014.

For Neil, who “just about survives” on a gross £26,000 a year, that means either trimming an extra £55 from his monthly budget or forgoing his pension altogether.

As it is, he just about breaks even after rent, utilities, food and transport.

“I’m just scared of being really old and poor,” he says, as the picketers begin to hive off towards the rally down the street.

*****

For all the police presence and talk of inconvenience to the public, I encounter just one solitary voice of opposition throughout the entire day. It’s a balding man in a polar fleece and lanyard, leaning over the railing outside BBC Radio Manchester and evidently on his lunch break. The irony does not escape us.

“Boo,” he calls in a voice strangely drained of passion. “Boo.” The 3000-strong crowd cheers and surges on down Oxford St.

*****

As we round the bend into Castlefield Basin I find myself next to Barry Lingard, a former PE teacher who’s now the local branch secretary for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

The Association has never, ever gone on strike before: its last industrial action was an afternoon meeting in 1979. But Barry’s story is practically an object lesson in why they’re striking today.

At 57, he’s spent the last ten years as head of learning support in Smith Hills School in Bolton, teaching high schoolers with a reading age of eight.

He’s done the sums and was expecting a pension of £14,000 a year — hardly gold-plated by anyone’s standard. But now, he says, the union’s pension calculator has told him that nest egg will shrink 27.5 percent to a grand total of £195 a week. And between the rise in the retirement age to 68 and a Manchester male’s average life expectancy, he should have a good five or six years to enjoy it.

“For putting in 35 years at the coalface, it’s pretty grim,” he says.

But it’s not just his own pension he’s worried about. “This policy will destroy the very fabric of public education,” he says, without a glimmer of exaggeration.

Thirty percent of the teaching workforce are over 50, he says: “If they push the reforms, they’ll push a lot of us to leave and there’ll be a massive loss of skilled staff.”

It’s not just the oldies either, if the National Union of Teachers’ figures are anything to go by. A survey commissioned in April found nearly 72 percent of staff aged 30-50 said they were likely to quit if the pensions plan went ahead.

Perhaps the government is calling their bluff, I suggest: in this job market, it’s doubtful where else they could go. Barry shakes his head: “I don’t think they’ve thought this through at all.”

There’s a cheer around us as we arrive at the amphitheatre. We’re right at the head of the crowd but it’s already a quarter full. As I turn and begin the long walk back up Liverpool Rd, I realise I can’t actually see the march’s end.

Maybe Barry’s right, I think to myself. They really haven’t thought this through at all.

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