Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/380/4279
Time to make a stand on pensions
HUGE anger is building up against New Labour's attacks on pensions. Socialist Party members in the unions have been arguing for over 18 months - and were the first to raise the idea - that at least a one-day public-sector strike is needed to defend pension rights and the public sector.
Now that call is being taken up and many of the major unions are starting ballots of their members for strike action against the government attacks, particularly the raising of the retirement age.
Public-sector unions UNISON, PCS, TGWU, UCATT and Amicus, over one million workers, are being balloted to take strike action on Wednesday 23 March in protest at the government's plans to rob over £100 billion from their pension entitlement. The Fire Brigades Union and lecturers' union NATFHE may also ballot for action at this time.
We could see a major wave of strike action across the public sector. Millions of workers will want to make a stand against cuts in their pensions, which mean they will have to pay more, get less and work longer - possibly until they drop dead in some cases.
Workers in health and education are also affected and will have to take action in the future to defend their pensions.
Workers in Britain could follow the example of French workers who have been striking in their millions against their government's plans to cut back the welfare state, including pension rights.
The strike action will be the first time for decades that the major public-sector unions have taken simultaneous strike action over the same issue.
The union leaders have in some cases been dragged into calling this action and union members must now apply the maximum pressure to ensure their leaders pull out all the stops to see the strike ballots return as big a majority as possible.
Then there will need to be a meticulous campaign of propaganda and organisation to ensure the widest possible involvement of workers in the strike.
On 18 February - the TUC day of action on pensions - many local trade unions and trades councils are organising demonstrations or rallies. These can be used to organise local co-ordinating committees in which Socialist Party members should play the fullest possible part.
We will be urgently campaigning amongst public-sector workers to ensure that the action is a big success, rocking the government to its foundations in the run-up to a general election.
We are producing a pamphlet on pensions, a party leaflet and a poster to use to intervene and assist the campaign for action.
Our party members have played a key role in bringing about the possibility of unified action.
We realised that the mood was there for such action and applied pressure on the union leaders. Our trade union members have played a key role in co-ordinated negotiation and planning between the unions.
A ONE-DAY strike by itself will not necessarily stop New Labour's attacks on the public sector but it will be a big kick start to a campaign. There is only one language New Labour understand and that is the language of action.
There is talk of the unions calling further action after Easter, before a general election, and that they could continue with that action after an expected Labour victory in a May election, if the government doesn't back down. This is big step forward, even if at this stage it is only a vague outline designed to increase pressure on the government.
If a further strike materialises, then the pressure must be put on the education unions, the health sector of UNISON and other unions, who are not currently balloting for action on 23 March, to join in.
And workers outside the public sector, who have their own grievances over pensions, will be asking why they shouldn't be allowed to join in the action.
It is possible, given such a threat, that the government will find some way to make concessions or stop the legislative changes to the local government pension scheme, due to be enacted on 1 April. Although not the end of the battle, this would be a big victory.
It is important, however, that any concessions that the government is forced to give are not used to divide the unity of the unions' struggle, or leave smaller sections of workers to fight on alone. Any sign of weakness by the unions, now or in the future, will invite government aggression.
Even if minor concessions were to be made on the local government scheme, all the proposals the government has for April 2006 for health, education, and the civil and fire services - affecting over a million workers - would still be intact.
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis has stated that despite government assurances last summer it is now "clear that the decision to increase retirement ages was not negotiable."
There has never been a better chance for united action to settle the scores with New Labour over its anti-union, anti-working class attacks and for the unions to begin to recover the confidence of the wider working class after 25 years of retreats in the face of the bosses' attacks. It's time to deliver action that can advance the interests of working people.
In The Socialist 12 February 2005: