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Lessons of N30 2011 pension strike: when workers showed their power
John McInally, national vice-president, Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) (personal capacity), and Rob Williams, chair, National Shop Stewards Network
The fifth anniversary of the public sector pension dispute strike on 30 November 2011 allows an opportunity to reflect on the most significant and defining trade union struggle of the recent period. A struggle which exposed right-wing unions for either being incapable or unwilling to come to terms with what austerity meant as a generalised attack on the working class and the necessity for sustained, generalised and coordinated action to resist it.
The pensions dispute also demonstrated the enormous potential power of our class when organised in our own democratic organisations - trade unions - to challenge the coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats who were intent on stripping away hard-won rights and conditions of workers in order to pay for a banking crisis they had no part in creating and which, in fact, the ruling elite ruthlessly exploited in order to drive through cuts and privatisation.
The question of the crisis of leadership in the movement was sharply defined in the disconnect between the willingness of workers to struggle in defence of their interests and union and Trade Union Congress (TUC) leaders who had no confidence in those members to struggle. And who, in fact, did not believe there was any alternative not just to capitalism but to austerity, the government's slick name under which they intended to carry out unremitting class warfare in the interests of the corporate elite at the expense of the overwhelming majority in society.
The coalition intended to ramp up the cuts and privatisation programme that New Labour had developed from the Thatcher-Major governments. The public sector was directly in their sights and if they could neutralise or defeat the public sector unions then the path would be clear to implement their programme without the obstacle of the organised working class in their way.
Their decision to launch an attack on the pension rights of millions of public sector workers was a gamble for them, but a necessary one in which they calculated, in the words of Tory minister Frances Maude, that the trade unions "had no stomach for a fight". The Tories, not for the first time, failed to distinguish between the conservative trade union leaders and the membership.
Public sector workers were outraged by the attack on their pension rights, particularly since an 'affordable' pension deal had been agreed only a few years earlier. The justification for the changes was a report by the contemptible Blairite John Hutton, a notorious collector of corporate sponsorships for services rendered.
Pensions were the great unifying factor throughout the public sector. The government planned to steal £2.8 billion from mainly low-paid workers with women workers being disproportionately disadvantaged.
Low pay means low pensions. The average civil service pension for full service, excluding the tiny proportion of high earners, was £4,200 a year - hardly the riches implied by government propaganda.
The draconian proposals meant members would be expected to double or even treble their contributions (the value of an extra day's work a month), work until 68 and accept cuts of 20-50% in the value of pensions.
All this represented a savage assault on the living standards of some of the lowest paid workers in society who were also facing an avalanche of attacks on wages, conditions, privatisations and job losses.
The official poverty line was £170 a week, the state pension £102 a week. Reduced occupational pensions would increase the number of pensioners in poverty, which then stood at 2.5 million with 3.5 million in fuel poverty. At the time France spent 12% of GDP on pensions, Germany 10% but Britain a mere 6%. Public sector workers now faced a life of low pay in insecure employment followed by an impoverished old age. The net cost of paying public sector pensions in 2009 was just under £4 billion, the cost of paying tax relief to the 1% of those who earn more than £150,000 is more than twice as much.
As always in the road to confrontation with trade unions, the government attempted to divide the working class. With the cooperation of the corrupt corporate mouthpieces of the British press and media, the government went all out to divide public and private sector workers and claimed pensions for the former came at the expense of the latter's. They sought to drive a wedge between public and private sector workers with the aim of normalising the 'race to the bottom' as an inevitable fact of life.
Workers in the main saw through these tactics and understood robbing one group of workers of their rights in no way served their own interests, not least because many households were composed of workers in both sectors.
In fact private sector pensions had been reduced because during the 1980s and 90s companies took 'pension holidays' that left schemes under-funded and when legislation was introduced to guarantee levels of funding it increased the rate of pension fund closures as companies were unprepared to fund schemes at shareholders expense. The loss of these schemes did not, during a period of economic boom, save jobs, guarantee pay rises or help to avoid financial meltdown in the private sector - the only beneficiaries were the shareholder and bosses.
Maude was also relying on right-wing union leaders like Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, and Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary, to not just keep members in line but also those union leaderships, like the left leadership in PCS - which had already clashed with the new government - the National Union of Teachers and others, who were prepared to fight.
In this, Maude also had the cooperation of the Labour leadership, which under Ed Miliband continued the neoliberal cuts and privatisation programme of Blair and Brown. The only, barely recognisable, point of departure between them was summed up in the craven slogan that the cuts were "too fast and too deep" which incredibly, appeared on the bibs of stewards at the massive 750,000-strong TUC demonstration on 26 March 2011.
The relationship between conservative union leaders and the Blairite Labour Party was in reality an unholy alliance designed to prevent workers struggling at any price. When Labour was in power these union 'leaders' argued that taking strike action against 'our' government was wrong. When the Tories were in power it was still wrong as it harmed Labour's chances of reelection and because they could not be beaten.
Negotiations between the government and public sector unions were described by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka as a "farce". Liberal Democrat treasury minister Danny Alexander intervened prior to negotiations and Maude demanded the unions accept the core issue of increased contributions, cuts in the scheme's value and rise in the working age even before talks began. Maude aimed to split the unions by getting them fighting over the distribution of the cuts rather than opposing them outright.
From the beginning PCS demanded total rejection of the detrimental elements of the deal and argued the only way to defeat this attack was by the unions sticking together and building a coordinated campaign across the public sector, including coordinated industrial action, organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
PCS members voted for action alongside three education unions on 30 June 2011, which involved around three quarters of a million workers in the first major industrial action against the coalition's cuts and privatisation programme. PCS members voted not just for a day of action on pensions but for a programme of discontinuous action to defend pay, jobs and conditions, all of which were under attack - not just in the civil service but across the entire public sector. This linking of issues caused deep unease not only in government ranks but also among TUC and union negotiators who wanted the pensions issue disposed of almost entirely on the terms dictated by the government.
Strike action on 30 June galvanised not just civil service and education workers but also those in unions like Unison, the biggest public sector union controlled by the right wing. Workers rightly demanded "if they can take action against these attacks why can't we and moreover why can't we do it together?"
As the summer progressed more unions decided to ballot their members. The government tried to divide the unions by demanding they enter talks on a sector-by-sector basis but PCS was adamant that the key principles must be collectively opposed and negotiated before any sector talks could begin. Confidence was high among workers and this posed major problems for the government and the right-wing leaders who wanted the issue done and dusted with as little fuss as possible.
The threat of strike action forced Alexander to concede that workers earning less than £15,000 would not have any increases in contributions, although that had to be confirmed in negotiations. Other concessions were made including those earning less than £18,000 having their contributions capped at 1.5%. But only 4% of PCS members earned less than £15,000 and only 1% across the whole public sector. These concessions were clearly intended to divide the unions.
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband attacked the government for "mismanaging" the issue but in power in 2005 Labour had also attempted to increase the pension age but were defeated by the threat of coordinated strike action.
The government clearly tried to divide those "reasonable" union leaders with who they "could do business" against PCS and other unions who Alexander said were "hell bent on premature strike action". This was a coordinated strategy involving right-wing unions, the Labour Party leadership - Ed Balls even said striking was walking into a "Tory trap" - and the government itself. Mark Serwotka and PCS were demonised in the press and even on the floor of parliament itself.
All sides knew this was a defining battle which laid bare the intense antagonisms between the ruling class and the rest of society. It also laid bare the unbridgeable chasm between those leaders in the trade union movement who wanted to fight the attack on pensions and also the entire cuts and privatisation agenda and those who were determined to bow down before it. Serious attempts were made to isolate PCS within the movement but the upsurge of anger by millions of public sector workers meant there could be no avoiding industrial action and a one-day public sector strike was called for 30 November.
30 November involved up to three million workers and also gained the enthusiastic support of other workers. Striking workers were cheered and clapped as they made their way through towns and cities throughout Britain. Marches and rallies attracted huge numbers, for example 30,000 in Manchester, 20,000 in Bristol and an astonishing 4,000 in Taunton. This was the biggest industrial action in modern British history - effectively a public sector general strike. The government was rattled.
PCS called for the campaign to be escalated. At the Bristol rally John McInally said: "My union, PCS, believes that the TUC must announce at its upcoming meeting - as an absolute minimum - another national day of action involving all the unions on strike today. We must escalate by getting even more unions on board, including private sector workers fighting for their pension rights too. Targeted, selective or rolling action must be coordinated by the TUC for maximum impact. The way to win is to demonstrate our power as we have done today, striking together. National coordinated industrial action is the key to defeating the attack on pensions and the cuts themselves".
Shamefully, Ed Miliband stated he could not support the industrial action, which was a barely disguised nod and a wink to the craven right-wing union leaders to get the whole thing sorted as soon as possible. Many speakers at rallies across the country condemned the treachery of Miliband and Labour.
At the start of the day of action Prime Minister David Cameron tried to portray the strike as a "damp squib" but as the truth dawned he lambasted the hapless Miliband in parliament later in the day.
Rather than seize the initiative created by this magnificent show of class power, the TUC and other right-wing union leaders moved quickly to dampen expectations and it is clear they collaborated with the government to derail the struggle. Rumours began to circulate of a "heads of agreement" which Barber was selling as a solution to the dispute. It was also common knowledge that no concessions, other than those already secured by the threat of action, were on the table. The TUC general council in December was met by a lobby organised by the National Shop Stewards Network that was supported by activists and members from various public sector union and addressed by left leaders. Inside, Mark Serwotka, with the full support of the PCS national committee, led opposition to what was a cynical sell-out and a disgusting betrayal of millions of workers.
The TUC leadership's plan was to divide the unions by accepting the government strategy of entering sectoral negotiations without securing common collective agreements on the core issues.
The betrayal was carried out in the full knowledge it meant a green light was being given to the government to not just attack pensions but press forward with their cuts and privatisation programme.
The betrayal was acted out over the Christmas period and leaders of key unions like, Unison, indicated they were up for the deal. PCS Left Unity (the socialist group in the union) organised a special fightback conference of activists on 7 January, chaired by Janice Godrich and addressed by John McDonnell MP, Mark Serwotka and others. Between 500 and 600 attended, showing the scale of anger at the betrayal of public sector workers.
The conference was a turning point. The demoralisation the government and the TUC and other union leaders thought would lead activists and members to the conclusion there was no alternative but to accept the heads of agreement was fundamentally challenged.
PCS was at the forefront of an attempt to re-build a coalition of unions that wanted to fight on. But when key allies could or would not join in proposed action on 28 March 2012 it had to be suspended. Further action took place on 10 May with PCS, UCU, Unite and ISU taking part. The militant rail workers' union the RMT also took action. So too did the prison officers' union POA despite a no-strike ban imposed under a Labour government. The Police Federation also held a major demonstration in London that day against attacks on pay, jobs and against privatisation.
The bitter reality was this reduced coalition simply could not deliver the level of action PCS members agreed to and in the final result the divide and rule strategy of the Tories with which the movement's "leaders" acquiesced, allowed the government to drive home its pension changes. Breaking the fundamental principle of maximum unity in the face of a vicious attack by the Tories was no accident on the part of the union leaders who supported the heads of agreement. It was a carefully choreographed act of cynical class collaboration and it exposed the deep failure of leadership in our movement - linked as it was to the scab mentality of New Labour who had long since abandoned any pretence of even the most minimal support for workers in struggle.
The pension dispute was a defeat and a setback. But not one that resulted in the smashing of the unions in an industrial struggle like the 1984-85 miners' strike. It was but on the basis of open treachery by a cowardly leadership who believed there was no point fighting back - despite all the evidence that fighting can secure concessions and even victories.
Two of the three 'leaders' who signed the heads of agreement were given knighthoods for 'services to trade unionism'.
The pensions dispute demonstrated the great gap and contrast between the capacity and determination of workers to struggle and union and TUC leaderships that only understand concession bargaining - and only on the basis the unions give all the concessions.
The vengeful and vicious Tories could not let any opposition and resistance go unanswered. They attempted to smash PCS by the withdrawal of the check-off facility, an attempt to bankrupt the union. This attempt failed and PCS, under its socialist leadership has emerged stronger from the experience.
The ever 'pragmatic' leaders of the Prentis-Barber stripe set the conditions for a brutal assault on British workers and the working class in general. It is a scandal that in the years since the pensions dispute right-wing union leaders have resisted the repeated calls by PCS and others to organise coordinated campaigns and action across the public sector in collective response to attacks that impact on all workers. Fighting individual, separate battles in isolation is all these 'leaders' are prepared to tolerate, despite that building coordinated action is actually official TUC policy.
Future generations will look back in astonishment at the fact the NHS - the most precious achievement of the British labour and trade union movement - is being systematically privatised and effectively destroyed and there has not been one single day of generalised action across our movement to stop it. That is another legacy of the cowardice and betrayal of union leaders who prefer to deliver for the corporate elite rather than their own members.
The recently legislated Trade Union Act is a direct result of the pensions defeat. Had the TUC stood up to the pensions attack it would have been simply impossible for the Tories to attempt such an outrage. In fact, it is unlikely they would have retained power in the face of a defeat on pensions, or even a major setback.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is a delicious irony being played on those union leaders who refused to fight on pensions, opening the possibility Labour could once again become an effective vehicle for working class representation. This was based, like the Yes vote in Scotland and the Leave vote on the EU, on an anti-austerity mood they refused to harness to defend the rights and conditions of millions of workers during the pensions dispute.
The crisis of leadership in the trade union movement is the biggest single factor in allowing the Tories to press their 'race to the bottom' policies. The concession bargaining 'diplomats' of the union and TUC bureaucracies are dead weight on our movement and a millstone around the necks of workers who are prepared to fight. The struggle to build leadership capable of standing up to the bosses will continue and, despite setbacks, the empty role of the collaborationists will be more sharply exposed, and the need for fighting leaderships more pronounced in the coming period.
In The Socialist 23 November 2016:
Socialist Party news and analysis
What we think
N30 strike: five years on
International socialist news and analysis
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