Can’t pay: won’t pay

It’s a free country, I told them.
It isn’t if you can’t go and work somewhere else.

I’m getting a real sense of deja-vu. 30+ years ago, I trekked into school to hole up in an office off the library where one of the few non-striking teachers ran a handful of us through A Level French revision.

This morning I sent my teenagers off to finish their mock GCSEs, in schools where the exams are the only things happening. Teen 1 has just turned up back at home, having finished Maths Paper 2 and been turfed out, along with his friend who can’t get home until this afternoon because of the train strike. Chances of them doing any actual revision together are slim. Teen 2 has been told that the school will remain open, though those whose teachers are striking will be supervised during the ‘private revision study’ in the hall with everyone else. She is not happy.

Today is being heralded on the news bulletins as ‘the biggest day of industrial action for a decade’. It’s not quite the General Strike of 1926, but good luck to anyone hoping to travel anywhere by train, bus or ambulance over the next few days.  As for planning to learn something today, forget it. And for heaven’s sake stay away from matches as the fire service is getting in on the (in-)action at some point.  The General Strike of 1926 was born out of the private mine-owners desire to maintain their profits, even in the face of global economic weakness, the after-effects of World War One, by reducing miners’ pay and increasing their hours. Arguably, that is a completely different kettle of fish to today’s strikes, however, inflation, the cost of fuel to get you to work, consistently high energy prices and spiralling grocery costs are all combining to reduce actual spendable income. So it feels as though pay is going down, even though it isn’t. And that feeling of working your tail off yet still being poorer than you were last year isn’t confined to the public sector either.

The mainstream media really isn’t helping. These strikes are not simply about pay levels, and it’s unhelpful to suggest that they are. My friends husband is a primary school teacher in an area where 25% of pupils not only don’t have English as their first language, but in most cases arrive at school without knowing any English at all. Yet the National Curriculum takes no account of regional or demographic differences. How can you be expected to teach fronted adverbials to a child who can’t read that the cat is sitting on the mat? There are teacher shortages across all levels, and across all subjects, so workloads are increasing, yet pay isn’t.

It’s the same with nurses, with ambulance drivers, with train operatives, fire-fighters. I’ve written here before about the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Can you imagine how much worse it would have been had there been no firefighters there? The train strike headlines are all about pay, yet talk to the guards and the trains and they are concerned about falling safety standards and job losses. I don’t want to have to travel home on a late train where the only person to approach in an emergency is the person actually driving it. I’ve spent enough time in and around hospitals over the past few years to know that the problems are not at ground level, that going above and beyond the call of duty is something that nurses and doctors do every single day. Is it too much to ask that they do so knowing they can still afford to pay the gas bill when they get home. Or that they have enough staff to ensure that they do get home somewhere near the end of their shifts?

Staff shortages mean more work for those who are left, we all saw that during furlough. We will never encourage enough people to come into sectors like teaching, nursing, the ambulance service, the railways unless they know they can make a reasonable living at it and afford to pay for their lives. That’s why we go to work.

I have no idea what the answer is. The simple one, of course, is pay the money and invest in the sectors,  invest in our future, but until a magic money tree sprouts in the infamous Downing Street garden, that is not going to happen.

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About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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