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Vision of service, not private gain

17 August 2011

WHEN public-sector workers went on strike a few weeks ago, over the Government’s pension policy, I was invited to “give the Quaker view on strikes” on a radio programme. I de­clined, partly because no individual speaks for the Society of Friends, but, principally, because there is no “Quaker view”. A challenge remains, however, in how an ethically in­formed response to a difficult ques­tion may be worked out.

A Quaker embarking on this task can draw on no credal statement. But there is a tool available in our Testi­monies of peace, equality, simplicity, and truth. These are basic statements of belief, arising from convictions that first took root in the radical religious and social ferment of the mid-16th century. The peace Test­imony has its origins in the Quaker declaration to King Charles II: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever.”

The Testimonies have never taken a prescriptive form, but, depending on the Quaker belief that spiritual practice must be based on personal experience, they require a constant search for ways in which they may be realised, and develop, in each generation, to meet the challenges of their time.

An employment contract encom­passes honest work, competently executed; fair treatment regarding wages and conditions; and willing­ness to approach difference or griev­ance with a will to resolution rather than a determination to dominate.

If it is to be sustainable for both parties, and for those for whom it enables the provision of goods or ser­vices, it should be rooted in an experi­ence of shared purpose and mutual trust.

As the Government comes under increasing criticism for the severity of its measures to reduce the deficit, its employees — many of whom provide our health care, education, and public administration — could reasonably believe that this commonality of purpose is under threat. All the Quaker Testimonies offer prisms through which light may be directed at the crumbling of financial and social relations that are both the cause and the outcome of strikes.

The Quaker Testimonies are de­pendent on each other. They re­semble the relationships between employer and employees. Simplicity grows from an indwelling commit­ment to equality, and feeds back into its advance; peace depends on in­tegrity for conflict resolution. But the seeking out and speaking of truth is central to unravelling the ethical problems that seem likely to continue to confront us in the coming months.

THE Prime Minister has already had to row back from his administration’s rhetoric on “gold-plated public-sector pensions”. An independent review of pensions undertaken by Lord Hutton put the average between £5600 and £7800 a year, while the Com­munity and Public Sector Union places the figure for a worker on the median wage at £4200.

The apparent intent to alter perception of the facts must be questioned. Truth is more than the avoidance of misrepresentation. It requires a fair assessment of the understandings on which agreements are built.

A long-standing acknowledge­ment that public-service pensions and job security form part of a tacit compensation for salaries — for all but the most menial jobs — that are lower than those in the private sector seems to have been set aside very lightly. When combined with the deceitful “all in this together” trope, the sense of betrayal experienced by those who are often low-paid workers is un­surprising.

The Quaker Testimony of equality has little to do with drab uniformity and everything to do with George Fox’s “answering that of God in everyone”, which, unimpressed by worldly status, sets its face against injustice. “Do to others as you would have them do unto you” is at its heart.

The recent remark by the Minister for Policy, Oliver Letwin, that hospital staff and teachers need “some fear of job losses” to achieve excellence dis­plays a brutal disregard for the actual circumstances of the lives of workers who do so much to provide the mortar of society.

The sense of powerlessness soon builds. Workers on modest wages, which are frozen as inflation rises, are now required to make larger contri­bu­­tions towards smaller pensions, which will now be delayed by several years. Meanwhile, the pension of Fred Goodwin, and the bonuses of many other bankers, appear sacrosanct. Denial of the justice of equitable dealing demands protest.

The form of that protest must be subject to discernment. The act of withdrawing service, even for a day, raises the potential for conflict. But long-term peace does not grow from passivity, and a day of inconvenience may be necessary to bring the in­justice and potential for future decline in a service to the notice of those who depend on it.

Plainness of life informs clarity of vision, and the willingness to think beyond knee-jerk responses will be vital as the rolling programme of strikes planned by public-service unions continues in the months ahead.

This may mean, for example, that the working mother who has to pay for childcare when a school is closed recognises her common cause with those who work for her child’s future. It may require the recipient of a local-authority service to acknowledge that its disruption for a day may be the means of ensuring its survival.

In 1914, the Society of Friends for­mulated eight “Foundations of a true social order”. They included these words: “Not through antagonism, but through co-operation and goodwill can the best be obtained for each and all. Mutual service should be the principle upon which life is organised. Service, not private gain, should be the motive of all work.”

This presents a significant chal­lenge to the Government, strikers, and the public. All will need to exercise forbearance. I believe the Testimonies offer a touchstone for our response.

Jill Segger is a freelance writer, a Quaker, and a member of the Labour Party.

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