Ahead of Wednesday's strike, Huff Post UK spoke to Mark Serwotka for a quick Q&A and asked why he thinks George Osborne is like a second-hand car salesman, why there could be more strikes, and why the government reminds him of Dad's Army.
Do you think union leaders have a bit of an image problem?
No, not at all, no.
Do you feel you have public sympathy for the strikes?
Well, the opinion polls clearly show that at the moment. 61% on the BBC, of people support the strikes. And that is despite the fact that the government I s behaving in the most unstatesmanlike, unprofessional way imaginable. They are really showing that …. Millionaire ministers going around hurling abuse rather than want to negotiate a settlement. I actually think the public understand here who’s trying to get a deal for millions of people and who wants to go around provoking and stoking the fires.
Do you think that the government genuinely tried to get a deal?
No, absolutely not, no. They have not tried…
What are they like when you negotiate with them?
Well, we’re not negotiating, that’s the point. If you look at the government’s actions over the last six months, they’re extraordinary. They have no sat down and had detailed discussions in the entire period about the things that matter – that’s the work longer, pay more and get less. We haven’t met them since the 2nd November, they’ve known the strikes has been going head now for months and what they’re now doing is running around like Dad’s Army panicking about providing cover here, and training people up at 2 hours notice to cover the airports, and hurling insults, and that to me is not the behavior of a series government at all, it’s people who have put no effort into resolving the dispute at all.
You think they’ve put no effort in, do you think they want there to be strikes?
I think there are a variety of reasons it could be but I can’t speculate on their motives, I can only comment on their actions and their actions could not have been further removed from those who genuinely want to get a settlement. I think, you know, the question they should answer is how can they explain that we haven’t met them since the 2nd November, making it 28 days and no making plans and yet they claim to want to settle in spirit, well the two things are clearly contradictory I think.
Do you think that you’re still going to have public sympathy after the day of the strikes?
I think we’ll have more.
More? Even from people who have been waiting for operations on the NHS have had theirs cancelled?
Well, there’s clearly going to be some people who will suffer disruption who won’t be very happy but even then I don’t think they’ll be blaming those who were defending their pension. I think what you’ll see tomorrow is not public sector workers on strike, of which there’ll be millions, what I’m forecasting, you’ll see people from the private sector, pensioners…
You think people from the private sector and pensioners also striking?
Well, supporting the demonstration and the marchers not the striking but they will practically be showing their support for what’s going on and in that sense I think tomorrow is a day where a lot of people will take heart from the fact that some people are finally standing up and staying we are completely opposed to you wrecking the economy and making us pay the price for it.
Today, George Osborne repeated his claim that public sector pensions were unaffordable and you could argue that…
He comes across to me as a dodgy second-hand car salesman to be honest, in that every forecast he’s made has been wrong, he is not accepting they’ve got it wrong, he’s making it worse and what he’s really saying is all the misery and the unemployment is a price we’re going to have to pay even though in my view it’s making the situation worse and it’s actually shrinking the economy.
Is he provoking public sector workers?
Well, absolutely because what he’s saying is you’ve had two years of pay freeze, you’re going to have three years of 1% a year, inflation over that five year period will probably be in excess of 15% being conservative about it, which means people will be having to cut their living standards…
But doesn’t everyone have to help pay off the deficit?
No, no, I don’t think so.
So, no one should have to make any sacrifice?
Well, the people who should make the sacrifice should be the people who caused it and who still appear to be doing pretty well. It’s only a few weeks since we saw stories about chief executives pay rising by nearly 60% … It is a matter of record that the people who caused the mess don’t appear to be the ones putting their hands in their pockets and this isn’t about people pulling together, what this is, is the majority of people who don’t have much paying the biggest price of all to solve a problem they didn’t create?
So, this is just about class war?
This is the government ensuring that the class that they favour are doing OK while everyone else is made to suffer?
So, this is a kind of 1% thing?
No, it’s not 1%… Oh I see, I know what you mean, ‘we are the 99’ … It is clearly people who don’t look at the real world, who haven’t noticed perhaps that we have got 1m young people unemployed, unemployment rising towards 3m, cuts in people’s living standards, now a tax on their pension, job insecurity…
And they clearly don’t use things like the NHS…
Well, they may use the NHS but they clearly don’t care bout the consequences of their policies.
And what happens after tomorrow, are there going to be more strikes?
Well, I think that depends on whether the government makes any moves to solve the dispute.
They’ve said there won’t be any concessions? Have they made any moves to meet with you after tomorrow?
If there are no more concessions, then there will be more strikes.
What are we talking about, more coordinating strikes?
Are you going to keep on striking?
We will carry on trying to defend peoples’ retirement for as long as it takes until we get an acceptable outcome.
How will you ramp up the campaign?
Well, it’s hard to get any more involved, because we’re nearly all involved as it is. I mean, you have to see this in the context of … this isn’t a little incidental skirmish, this is millions of people on strike in a way we haven’t seen for decades. That’s going to raise questions isn’t it? I think it’ll raise questions about the government’s competence. And on the back of today’s unadulterated gloom, then it’s going to, not pose questions to the unions, it’s going to pose questions I think for the government.
And you think you’ll maintain public support even if there’s a series of coordinated strikes?
I think support will grow as people realise that we’re standing up for those who don’t have a lot.
But what about people in the private sector who have already had to take hits on their pension, why would they support you?
Well, you may not have noticed but there’s been a strike ballot announced in the last 24hrs at Unilever, which is in the private sector.
But that’s one private sector company, the majority of people in the private sector will just be inconvenienced by the fact that you’re on strike.
Well, if you believe the question you’re asking then all I can say to you is that means you subscribe to a policy of inequality and misery.
I may just be trying to get you to say something?
Those of us in the trade union movement aspire that all people should get decent terms and conditions and have a decent standard of living.
But that’s a wider question about the failure of the unions.
It’s not a wider question, it’s a question in answer to you saying private sector won’t be happy because they’ve already lost their pension
Do you think that the government is drawing a distinction between the public and the private sector and trying to play you off against each other?
Of course it is, that’s been their deliberate strategy from the beginning and I don’t think it’s going to work, that’s my point. My point is that what people should be doing is challenging them on what they claim because the only thing you can read into it is they want everyone to have crap pensions, so why don’t we have everybody saying we should decent pensions?
But what about the low turnout for the strikes, like 30% of some unions voted?
I think the turnout that matters is the one you will see tomorrow and if Francis Maude really believes there is low turnout then it won’t be worth supporting then why is he running around…
What kind of disruption are we talking about for tomorrow?
Well, it’s hard to predict. The government’s been talking up the disruption not the union, it’s a one-day strike at the end of the day but I think what you’ll see in every single part of the public sector, will have people outside picketing, whether it’s at school or a hospital or an airport or a jobcentre, everybody will be showing a real sense of solidarity and saying that we are trying to stop them robbing millions of people of money they can’t afford to lose.
What if people lose their job because of the strike, is it worth it?
Why would anyone lose their job?
People are losing a day’s pay, people who go on strike get known about…
I think the claim that people will lose their jobs as a result of the strike tomorrow is miserable really and I think it was something that the government is doing in this last minute, throw as much mud around as you can to divert from the fact that they’re not really doing their job and that’s why I think this last … have you ever seen Dad’s Army?
I was a bit too young for it.
Well, there’s this great character who runs around shouting, “Don’t panic, don’t panic!”
And that’s what the government are doing?
The government are acting in such a way that they’re running around saying don’t panic at the last minute, throwing insults around and actually I think most people expect something better from their government.