The discussion about big corporations paying surprisingly little tax keeps coming back around, and rarely changes in its substance. Every time, a significant part of the discourse is devoted to reminding us that, so long as what they’re doing is legal, companies like Starbucks are simply engaging in good business practice by minimising their tax liabilities.
Regular Joes in the street like you and me, we don’t go paying more tax than we legally have to, after all, and if we had the chance to save a few quid we obviously would. Why would we expect companies earning billions, and with expert accountants on their payroll to find and make use of clever loopholes, to be any different?
In other news which might not seem to be connected at first glance, Education Secretary Michael Gove has called for the docking of teachers’ pay if they engage in industrial action by “working to rule”, and has called the unions organising such action “highly irresponsible”.
Working to rule, if you’re not familiar with the phrase, essentially means doing your job up to the limits of what’s legally required of you, and not going an inch further. If you’re contracted to work until 5pm, you go home at 5pm on the dot. If you’re entitled to an hour’s lunch-break, you drop everything and take not an instant less than three thousand six hundred seconds of leisure in the middle of the day.
The reason that “only doing the work you’re paid for” can, in some cases, constitute significant industrial action – let alone the fact that there’s even a term for it – speaks to how normalised it is for many workers to do more than their job description as part of a regular work-day. If everybody doing no more than the job they’re paid for would do as much damage as Gove would have you believe, you’d think someone might want to look into finding a way of remunerating public sector employees in a way that’s less calamitously broken. Possibly this should even be within the Education Secretary’s remit to look into.
The comparison and contrast, I hope, is clear. Doing the bare minimum legally required of you: When billionaires and global corporations do it to avoid contributing any more to the public purse, they’re savvy investors wisely managing their finances to maximise growth and increase shareholder return. When teachers, nurses, doctors, and other workers contributing their labour for the public good and regularly doing more than they’re paid for do it, they’re irresponsible and should be fined.
It’s a term you only seem to hear from serious politicians when the little guy is fighting back for a change, but “class warfare” doesn’t get much more naked and shameless than that.
It shouldn’t be surprising, of course, because government ministers and people distanced from the level of actual service provision have an innate upper hand. Someone from the National Association of Head Teachers is quoted in that BBC article:
We understand the position of our colleagues in the teaching unions, but our duty to pupils overrides all political or industrial considerations.
And he has a point – obviously the well-being and care of pupils (or those needing medical attention, etc.) should always be kept in mind. But the extent to which we consider these publicly funded jobs vital and necessary means the people doing those jobs can effectively be held to ransom.
If you’re in a union of, say, steelworkers (they still have those, right? We must still use steel, even though it’s the future now?), and you’re not happy with your pay or working conditions, you can go on strike. The company management might not be happy, but that’s kinda the point – and who else is going to care? The public at large isn’t going to give a crap if some steel doesn’t get worked by one particular company. Collective bargaining for the win.
But if you’re directly responsible for providing a public service, then any kind of industrial action risks disrupting that service. A service which could be much needed, even life-saving, and which could be made unavailable to some people in need of it.
The simplest, most headline- and soundbite-friendly way (which, let’s face it, is the way a lot of media outlets are most likely to bother with) to frame any industrial action by public sector workers boils down to: “They’re letting people suffer because they want more money”. Children are going untaught, wounds are going untreated, vital operations are (it’s presumed by extrapolation) going unperformed, because teachers and nurses and doctors are refusing to do the work we pay for with our taxes.
It’s the easiest perspective to take, because the workers are the ones immediately responsible for providing the service – but an instinct to see things this way renders every public sector utterly powerless to preserve their own financial security and their rights as employees, in ways that aren’t similarly threatened for private employees.
If the government made the money-saving decision to abruptly cut the salary of every firefighter in the country by half, those firefighters might not feel inclined to put out many fires until that bullshit was sorted out. The implications could be horrifying – fire is very unhealthy if you eat too much of it, I’ve read – but you’d have to be insane not to support their call for the government to reverse their policy decision, and absolve the firefighters themselves of the bulk of the responsibility for any consequences. What’s the alternative? How far below a living wage would you have to give them, before firefighters stop just being selfish for not doing their job simply because they’re the ones sitting in the truck with the massive hose?
Whether or not public sector workers are driven more by a sense of duty and desire to do good than others, they’re also trying to earn a living, and deserve a chance to do so. If their attempts to fight for that chance are having a negative impact, look a little further up the chain of command before deciding where to place the blame. Look at the cuts to education spending, and the way the NHS is being squeezed and privatised, and think about how much of the blame for disrupted services really lies with individuals trying to support their families and pay their mortgages under increasingly tight and antagonistic conditions.