On Radio 4s You and Yours programme today* there was an argument between pro- and anti-union speakers as to whether the average salary for a full-time UK public sector worker was £22,000 (as the ‘pro’ asserted), or higher (as the ‘anti’ suggested). The ‘anti’ spokesman declared that the £22000 average included part-time workers – which the ‘pro’ spokesman absolutely denied.
This statement can be easily checked, so I checked it.
It turned out that the pro-union speaker was not telling the truth. Google confirmed that the average fulltime UK public sector salary was £28,808 last year – £3000 more than the private sector counterpart ( this, according to the ONS)
Such wilful disinformation does no good at all to the argument.
Now, as a county councillor, I don’t know whether I count as a public sector worker or not. Certainly no public sector union chooses to represent me and my low-paid work. (Work paid for by an ‘allowance’ which puts me and my family below the official poverty line, allows me a ‘career average’ (hah!) contributory pension that doesn’t kick in until I am 70 and has no problem with the degree to which my working hours exceed the European Working Time Directive. Unison – represent me, why don’t you!) However, I am temperamentally much much more on the side of a union, trying to represent others and address low wages, than on the side of “the bosses”, stereotyped as looking after number one.
But we all need to recognise that the split between private and public sector is no longer the argument of entitlement versus exploitation, or of equality versus inequity which too many on the left are old-fashioned enough to parrot, and which too many on the right are old-fashioned enough to agree with. One side bangs on about the ‘average working godger’ selflessly working for less than they would get in the private sector, the other side bleats about the politics of envy.
Neither side is telling anything like the whole truth. Which is that both sides are supporting a have and have-not system that neither wants to acknowledge in its entirety.
In the private sector there all too many people that we need not envy. Plenty of private sector workers earn poor salaries with deeply unenviable terms and conditions. Also, let us never forget that many people in the private sector are doing jobs which were once public sector until both left- and right-wing governments decided to privatise them. For reasons of economy.
On the other side, unions are disingenuous when it comes to the nature of the ‘working godgers’ they represent. In making a case for pensions they mention frontline staff : teachers, nurses, firefighters. They do not mention the Civil Service mandarins, the senior council executives, the senior doctors, educators and officials who they also represent and whose eye-watering salaries – and unduly generous pensions – are also included in these negotiations (and hidden away in these ‘averages’). Yet the extraordinarily generous pay and conditions at the top of unionised sectors may well be the very reason why the average pay for a public sector worker is higher than their private counterpart.
I would suggest both private and public sectors have an elephant in the room. The private sector elephant is the number of very badly-paid workers who support the enviable few; the public sector elephant is the large and unacknowledged number of unduly well-paid workers, hiding behind the union concern for the have-nots. It doesn’t make either system any fairer, though, does it? Each is an aspect of ‘jobs for the boys.’
In the case I mentioned above, both protagonists seemed to be quite charmlessly and ruthlessly picking up on the notion of ‘average’ to support their side of an argument, without any care (or interest) in the truth that lay behind. Statistics were being used as weapons rather than as tools for forensic investigation. What use is that to anyone?
Unless the meaningless drivel and point-scoring about ‘average earnings’ can be done away with across the board, and unless we can look instead at the differential between the top and bottom salaries in each sector, we will never get rid of the horrible inequity which has for many years existed in this country – where an administrative assistant works for £14000 a year – with anxieties about economic survival in old age – to support a chief executive ‘making do’ with a salary of £250,000 and a massive pension pot .
This continues to occur in unionised and non-unionised situations alike.
* 18-10-2011 ‘Do Strikes Work?’