Thursday, 10 July 2014

Sod You David Cameron: Why I Am On Strike Today

I am on strike today (10th July). I belong to one of the unions which have called today's industrial action which is affecting a variety of public sector areas, including mine which is local authority staff.

The soundbite machines on both sides of the dispute have already been running at full tilt. I will leave you to decide if you agree with the strikes or not. If you disagree with them, then there is little point debating the point with me, because I am on strike and therefor will not agree with you. David Cameron has already trotted out the usual Conservative desire to legislate against public sector workers striking.

I work for a highway authority which is just one of the functions local authorities have. Highway authorities are county councils, the London boroughs and other unitary authorities. They have various powers and duties to keep the highway network in a good state of repair, to improve road safety and to keep people moving. 

I am biased, but I think highway authority staff are the unsung local heroes of society. I will pause here, a true hero is not of course somebody who turns up for work every day and gets paid, no matter how stressful it is, how much their terms and conditions are being eroded or how they are suffering staff cuts. I use the term "unsung local hero" in its broadest and jolly sense; it is simply a term. I consider social workers, child protection officers, emergency services people and others like them as being the heroes of the public sector, but they would probably not see themselves that way.

Highways staff do not blow their own trumpets (and for the engineers, this is pretty much par for the course as civil engineers anyway). We are not showmen designers, we do not seek the limelight for personal gratification, we are the people (like most in the public sector) who get on with the day job despite always being understaffed and with never having enough funding. Being paid is nice (important even), but wanting to do a good job is something most of us have in common.

We carry on trying to do a good job whatever the circumstances. Recently, the Government encouraged councils to apply for a share of the politically spun £168m "pothole fund". The money is a woeful drop in the £12bn highway maintenance backlog ocean; but we duly put our bid in as did many highway authorities across the UK because with the state of our budgets, we are quite frankly getting desperate. Besides, our councillors rightly demanded we bid and I am sure our public would have been unhappy if we hadn't. 

Of course, we didn't get any extra staffing to put the bid together, despite the funding being announced part way through the financial year when staff are already working on planned works. No we put in the extra effort. We did quite well with a few hundred thousand pounds extra - a big deal if you saw the state of our maintenance budgets. The funding is politically spun as it has to be spent by March 2015 (just before the general election perhaps?) and the Department for Transport has lots of reporting strings to help the Government brag about what a good job they are doing. (remember £168m vs £12bn!) We have no extra staff around to spend this extra funding and indeed, we lost quite a few staff as a result of the 2010 cuts made by the Coalition. The guys will just get on with it. If we had another year to use the funding, we would really direct it well, but we will do our best to stretch it out to do the maximum good.

Although most people interact with the highways network every day (directly as users, or indirectly when others use it to provide them with a service), they give it no thought. They only become interested if they can't use it for some reason, there is a problem with it or "we" are trying to make changes they disagree with. I have no problem with ours being a service taken for granted. Only this week I received an enquiry from a "customer" who started by stating "what idiot changed the phasing of this junction". If I addressed my response as "Dear Mr Idiot" in return, he probably wouldn't have been too happy. OK, colleagues in other services are subjected to far worse abuse and even violence. But we get on with it as part of the job.

Back to the strike. The public sector has endured huge cuts since 2010, but the general consensus is that this represents perhaps half of the plan. In work, we were pretty slim as a highways department before 2010, we are a skeleton crew now. From a highways point of view, I doubt that the public have really noticed as we have tried to carry on. If we are in for another round of cuts as expected, you will see whole service areas being cut completely. Quite difficult when you have a statutory duty to maintain and operate a highway network!

Many of us in the public sector have the right hump at the moment. We are often made the scapegoat of government policy. We feel like the whipping-boys for the financial crash. We have politicians queueing up to belittle and criticise us (yes Eric, I am looking at you). We have the race to the bottom on pensions with the government calling them "gold plated". I thought they were part of our overall pay package. Oh yes, we are also having the usual crap from the Government about a strike being called on a low turnout by union members. They seem to have forgotten how many people don't bother to vote at general elections and how they are in power on a similarly low turnout.

So, I am sorry if you are disrupted when you go about your business. As someone working for a highway authority, you probably won't notice that I am on strike. Not unless you are trying to contact me to enquire after the latest piece of traffic management idiocy. Yes, you will have to wait an extra day for a polite and professional reply. My dispute is with the Government and its attacks on the public sector which will ultimately lead to a poorer service. Go and work for the private sector you might say. Well I have in the past and it treated me very well thank you. But why should I be forced out of my current job which, despite the moaning, I actually enjoy? No, sod you David Cameron, I am on strike today for reasons far beyond my own pay packet.


  1. Of course you have to appreciate that there isn't enough money to pay for everything we would like, however much we would like it.

    After all, it would never do to have funds from parking charges, and penalties for illegal, inconsiderate or downright dangerous car parking which can lawfully only be spent on highway and transport projects, because that would be a "tax" on "hard-working families", wouldn't it? And it would never do to introduce "efficiency savings" - such as getting a camera to do the work of several highly(?) paid parking wardens in identifying and actioning illegal parking. After all, the point of "efficiency savings" is only really to ensure that my elderly mother with Parkinsons and Dementia is not considered to be in sufficient need to merit a visit from occupational therapy consultants in Adult Social Services. Isn't it?

  2. Yes, there is the point of the affordability of public services and the mess is at the feet of the last government too.

    But, the public expect a Rolls Royce service where in reality, they get a 1980s Skoda, although they are told it is a new Skoda (silly analogy I know!)

    We could fund everything, but tax would have to go up and that is political suicide of course and "the powers that be" don't want to tell the truth of things.

    Yes, whinges of a highway engineer aside, vulnerable people are suffering as a result of the cuts.

  3. Actually... the last govt aren't much to blame, apart from not regulating financial services properly (though, nice storytelling by the coalition). The real problem is austerity, which just delays recovery from recession, without any positive effects. (The coalition knows this, but it's a useful agenda to cut back public services, and give money back to the well-off, who get much more of a smaller pie) Check Keynes, who worked this out years ago. Or the stimulus-led recovery in the US compared to the austerity 'recovery' here..