A question of values – Let’s strike for our future

By Barnaby Raine

Cast your minds back for a minute to October 2008. A slightly staggered world has suddenly found itself embroiled in a global financial crisis which threatens to plunge whole continents into a second Depression. Previously secure investments evaporate overnight. There is panic as thousands queue outside banks to withdraw their money in a last-ditch attempt to rescue their savings. Pension funds disappear and families gather round kitchen tables to work out how many more years than planned they will have to work. Amidst this climate of anxiety and disaster, Fred Goodwin, CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland whose crash had precipitated the economic crisis, has just announced his retirement at fifty.

It is not difficult to understand why Fred wants a bit of peace and quiet; in October 2008, he is not a popular man. Having brought £25billion annual losses to a once profitable business, Fred had sacked 9,000 RBS workers overnight. Then he gave himself a £2.6million bonus, presumably a reward for all the hard work he had put in that year. Once the bank, in dire straits, had been bailed out by the government and his salary was being paid by the British taxpayer, Fred Goodwin announced he was to retire on an annual pension of £703,000 on top of a lump sum paid into his bank account of £2.8million.

At this point, a very strange thing happened. As uproar spread across the country, both the government and the opposition in Parliament shrugged their shoulders and announced that they were powerless to stop Fred Goodwin walking away with millions in taxpayers’ money after having crashed the economy. His pension, they said, was written into his contract. He was eventually forced to relent only after a newspaper released photos of the swimming pool and tennis courts at his home in the south of France. Big banker Godwin’s pension is now worth a puny £200,000 per annum, and is, right now, still being paid by the British people.

Now fast-forward to 2011. As Fred Goodwin relaxes somewhere on the Cote D’Azur, the rules seem to have changed. Hundreds of thousands of teachers have just been told that their pensions will be slashed and their retirement security put in danger, even though, just like Fred, they all signed contracts. Unlike Sir (he was knighted by Gordon Brown) Fred Goodwin, these teachers had done remarkably little to bring down the global economy, and also unlike him, they would now be paying the high price for that recession.

Politicians on all sides had been eager to celebrate the decision of the RBS Chief Executive to retire on just ten times the average wage – he was, said the then Chancellor of the Exchequer ‘doing the right thing’. The average teacher’s pension is worth less than £10,000 a year. Only 5% are worth more than £20,000, after teachers accepted a big cut in the size of their pensions in 2008 to ensure pensions would remain affordable for future generations. Now, in 2011, they are being asked to work into their late sixties, pay more into their pensions while they work, and take less out during their retirements. Some teachers will lose more than £250,000 over the course of their old age. You don’t need to be a statistician to see a pattern emerging here, and a very different one to that which accompanied Fred Goodwin into the twilight years.

Something very odd has happened to our society when those who make their careers on the back of currency speculation and investment banking have such power and hold such sway that they can take home enormous pay packets even as their gambling pushes entire economies over the precipice of disaster, while those who teach our children are forced to march and now to strike for decent pay and security in retirement. And the voices of caution, so absent when Sir Fred and his ilk were collecting their booty, are numerous. Teachers, grimace politicians, should accept that the burden of paying for a huge financial mess has to fall on someone, and it has been decided that that someone should be them, along with all those other public sector workers who build our infrastructure, clean our schools or cure our sick – who keep the wheels of this country running and help make it a civilized place to live in.

The very richest and most powerful people in the world have never held back from standing up for themselves. Those like Fred Goodwin know that they have a lot to lose from an economy that dared to get its’ priorities straight, and they work very hard to stop that from ever happening. Daily, governments tell the poorest and most disadvantaged that they wish they could help them more, but are unfortunately bound by the ominous threats of the super-rich to move their companies offshore and withhold their taxes should even the slightest action be taken to ask them to contribute their fair share to society. Our pubic services lose an estimate £120billion every year to unpaid taxes from the wealthy, enough to wipe out the deficit at a stroke, if only the rich were asked to pay their taxes just like everyone else. All the while, teachers fall over themselves not to make trouble; one of the unions now balloting its’ members for industrial action has not called a single strike since 1978. The Royal College of Nursing has never been on strike in its’ history. So while Fred and friends are untouchable, our most valuable resource, our doctors, teachers and nurses, are much easier targets.

Teaching, it should be said, has historically been known as a profession that cannot guarantee its’ practitioners much in the way of financial remuneration but does at least offer a secure pension. As the rewards for those who trade in stocks and shares reach ever headier heights, unchecked by politicians who squirm that bankers are just too powerful to take on, teachers and others see their own finances tightly squeezed. The message could hardly be clearer – who are graduates emerging into the jobs market meant to think are deemed more important? Who is seen to matter more; those who help the next generation to get up and get on in life or the knighted Fred Goodwin? The result, in fewer of the best job-seekers choosing teaching as its’ reputation and financial viability falls, cannot be far around the corner.

Students, of course, are affected by all this. We, and I speak as a 16 year-old in the middle of my GCSE’s, will miss a day of school if teachers decide they have had enough of being treated like an easy source of revenue to clean up the mistakes of banks and bankers and choose to strike on 30 June. If they make the opposite choice though, we will be scarred far more deeply. With our lives ahead of us, we have the most to gain or to lose from the decisions our political masters take about the future of this country, and teachers now stand at a crossroads. They can choose to do nothing as our nation continues down this path, or they can opt to stand up for their vision of a just society just as Fred Goodwin never wasted any time in standing for his. They have the opportunity to send a bold and clear message and by doing so scratch the first dent in the edifice of what is fast becoming Fred Goodwin’s country, with a government that has cut Corporation tax at the same time as cutting benefits and services for the poorest.

Lecturers and teachers across the country can show the sort of defiance that has not been lacking from the top dogs at RBS and elsewhere; they can say this battle has become too one-sided, and now it is time for the champions of the poor and of a decent, fairer society to enter the ring.

If teachers take the hard decision to fight, we should be with them all the way. It is our futures that are at stake.

About educationactivistnetwork
The education activist network provides national coordination for trade unionists, academics, university workers and student campaigners fighting to defend jobs and education in the UK.

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