Thousands of doctors in Northern Ireland began strike action this morning in a UK protest over pensions. As a result, hospitals have cancelled some non-urgent operations and General Physicians are accepting only emergency cases.
This marks the first strike by doctors in the UK in almost forty years.
Dr Paul Darragh from the union’s Northern Ireland branch said: “We were driven to this.
“We had a fair pension scheme that we had negotiated with the government four years ago by which new entrants to our scheme would have a normal pension age of 65.
“We increased contributions. There were tiered contributions by which those who were highest paid would offset the contributions of those who were lowest paid. We also had an agreement by which, if there was any increased cost for those pensions, it would be met by us and not the tax payer.
“The government has walked away from those agreements and refuses to negotiate with us.”
Under the proposed changes, doctors currently under the age of 50 would have to work to 68, and pay more for their pensions. The government is imposing a deal that would require the best-paid doctors to contribute 14.5 percent of their salary (up from 8.5 percent).
Strikes involving the professional classes tend to be treated with more gravitas by the establishment media, perhaps due to a degree of bigotry rooted in classism. It’s one thing if teachers and janitors strike, but lawyers and doctors? Now things are serious.
A similar style of reporting occurred in Egypt and Tunisia when the professional classes there gathered to strike. Of course, devoting special coverage to a sea of lawyers marching in the streets is understandable. The spectacle of attorneys dressed in suits, marching toward an army, makes for great media.
Additionally, the presence of doctors and lawyers in a protest movement serves as a bellwether for how high up the social ladder the rot of instability has risen. Class snobbery has conditioned us to expect blue-collar workers—those people—to have to take to the streets to fight over their scrap benefits, but we expect the professionals to live lives of permanent comfort.
However, this is no longer the case. In fact, here in the United States, the number of individuals with PhDs who are on food stamps has tripled.
Overseas, class barriers are blurred under the crushing pressure of authoritarianism. In Tunisia, thousands of lawyers went on strike to demand an end to beatings by security forces at the beginning of that country’s unprecedented unrest. Similarly, doctors in white lab coats and lawyers in black robes poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the seventeenth day of the revolution.
Although treated more seriously, strikes by the professional class also risk facing a special kind of discrimination, even perhaps from parties who may otherwise claim to be sympathetic to workers.
“UK doctors strike despite $105,000-a-year pension offer,” one headline decries, leaving the subliminal message, the greedy bastards, to the reader’s discretion.
The implied text here is that generous pensions negate doctors’ right to strike when they are suddenly ordered to work for an additional eighteen years. This kind of dismissive reaction is a symptom of the dog-eat-dog mentality that befalls countries during times of great economic turmoil. Things are tough all over, and so it’s easy to attack doctors as being “greedy”.
Rarely is the conversation framed as, Are other pensioners paid too little? Rather, doctors are cast as the problem, as though their salaries are anywhere near the lavish “golden parachutes” handed out to people like Richard S. Fuld Jr., the Lehman Brothers chief executive, who earned $350 million between 2000 and 2007 even as his company headed for disaster.
“Taxpayer has contributed £67bn to pension pot for doctors,” the Daily Mail declares, but that kind of figure isn’t unusual. Teachers’ pensions here in the United States cost each state billions of dollars. Quite simply, that’s the price tag required to pay for people’s health and living costs in the latter years of their lives.
Undeniably, there are pension shortfalls both in the United States and the United Kingdom, but it’s not a coincidence they are occurring at a time when the lavishly wealthy are taxed at historically low rates, corporations abscond with billions in stolen revenue and the US and UK governments devote their agendas to unending war.
To offer only one example, the anti–corporate tax dodging group, UK Uncut, claims clamping down on tax avoidance by corporations and the rich and tax evasion could save the state £95 billon a year.
Unlike doctors’ pensions, that £95 billon-a-year price tag (£28 billion more than the pensions of every single doctor in the UK) isn’t compensation for tasks generally valued by society. That’s £95 billion a year in stolen revenue, but there are no angry headlines today decrying the greedy practices of Vodafone.