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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 March 2007

Local government pensions

UNISON leaders lead members into dead end

ABOUT 900 UNISON members in local government met on 6 March to discuss the way forward on pensions. The conference met nearly a year after the national strike involving over one million public-sector workers.

Paul Hunt, Coventry UNISON and Annoesjka Valent, Hackney UNISON

The strike was a massive show of strength from union members and showed the huge anger that exists amongst local government workers - it should have been a solid platform to continue the action and force a retreat from the employer.

Unfortunately the UNISON leadership called off further strikes, recommending further talks and seeking a judicial review.

The conference only took place after the Kirklees branch mobilised other branches to demand it. It was polarised around two composite motions. One was from the Local Government Service Group Executive (SGE), which praised the handling of the dispute and called for negotiations to continue.

Key issues

But key issues have not been resolved, such as lifetime protection, contribution rates for part-time workers and changes on the ill health proposals. In moving this motion, SGE chair Jean Geldart stated: "We are not going to get everything we ask for ...and we have to act like a mature trade union." A more cowardly position would be hard to imagine.

In moving the opposition motion (Composite C), which condemned the mishandling of the dispute and pointed out that key issues have not been resolved, Paul Holmes of Kirklees branch, pointed out that a year ago we had the government on its knees and that we had been in a position of strength.

The motion called for an immediate strike ballot and an escalating programme of national action, and for the dispute to be run by an elected strike committee.

Glenn Kelly from Bromley branch, pointed out that if the employers' proposal was so good, why hadn't the SGE come out recommending acceptance today? He pointed out that it was 10 years to the day that the leadership then had said that the Single Status Agreement would be a good deal!

Glenn said the UNISON leadership's approach was cowardice dressed up as democracy. Under the current proposals, a member under the age of 45 would be faced with either losing £1,000 a year or more off their pension or losing £15,000 or more off their lump sum, or they could work an extra two years to get the same benefit.

Roger Bannister from Knowsley branch pointed out that when the pensions dispute began, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis had said we were worth the same as other public-sector workers who had won full protection. So why weren't we getting the same?

The link between New Labour and the UNISON leadership meant calling off further strike action to avoid embarrassing the Labour Party.

Contributions like these reflected the real anger in the workplaces - which is probably why supporters of the leadership resorted to blatant red-baiting.

One speaker from Manchester accused the supporters of composite C as: "Wanting to use members' money to have a Trotfest". These attacks were answered by one female delegate from Bradford who simply declared: "I'm not a Trot, not a left-winger, this is about wanting justice."

The SGE motion was carried by around a margin of 60-40 on a show of hands.

Understandably, some activists were genuinely concerned that it would be impossible to mobilise the members again for more strike action after a year of inactivity and that we just had to take what was on offer.

But as the Socialist Party conference bulletin pointed out, we can't guarantee that our members will vote for action but if we do nothing we will never win full protection. The danger is now that our weakness will invite aggression from the government.

This is not like a pay dispute where we can come back for more the next year - once pension entitlements have gone, we will have to live with the consequences.

UNISON's leadership has led our members into a dead end. On pensions, Single Status and the NHS, we have come under attack from the government, so many members are asking why is it that UNISON continues to give financial and political support to the Labour Party?

The time has long been ripe for UNISON to break the link with Labour and look at how best to fight on both the industrial and political fronts. We need a union that is democratic, militant and prepared to fight.

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In The Socialist 15 March 2007:

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