Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/382/4309
What We Think
Pensions - force the government to retreat
IT LOOKS increasingly likely that up to one and a half million public-sector workers will take strike action on 23 March, in the biggest strike for over 20 years. This action will show the huge anger building up against the government's attempted pensions' robbery and its attacks on the welfare state.
New Labour is preparing the biggest ever assault on the public sector if they are returned to government after the election. They aim to save hundreds of billions, to end effective trade unionism in the public sector and further privatise enfeebled public services.
The pensions issue could begin to dominate the headlines with a general election rapidly approaching, despite the media ignoring it until now.
All the local government unions, (excluding the GMB), began balloting their members last week, due to end around 9 March, on strike action against government proposals to raise the retirement age and reduce pension rights.
All the unions involved in strike action, and other unions, are "calling on the government to withdraw regulations scheduled to take effect from 1 April which, without consultation, raised the retirement age of all public-sector workers to 65" (UNISON press release).
And the biggest civil servants' union, PCS, has started a ballot of its members this week after the government told the union that other changes to the civil servants' occupational pension scheme might be negotiated but the retiring age increase was "not negotiable".
This clearly reveals where the government intends to make its savings of up to 15%-20% on retirement age costs and where it expects public-sector workers to make the most sacrifice.
Lecturers' union Natfhe is also balloting about strike action on 14 April. Other education unions, NASUWT and the NUT are consulting their members about taking action on the same day (after the Easter break). The firefighters are also consulting members over strike action.
Last week, facing the threat of such action, local government unions met deputy prime minister John Prescott and the local government employers (LGA). Union leaders hoped to find a negotiated settlement, acceptable to union members, which would have meant the withdrawal of the proposed changes due from 1 April, without strings.
At one stage Prescott told the unions he would agree to lift the new regulations if the LGA agreed that they would not increase council taxes to compensate for losing any savings resulting from the changes.
Since the last council elections in May 2004, the LGA is now Tory-controlled and this could have been an attempt by Labour to shift the blame onto the LGA and thereby the Tories, when any strike took place.
But the talks broke down, apparently because the employers demanded that the extra costs of retaining the current pension arrangements would have to be carried by workers suffering job losses or cuts in services.
IT WAS the PCS strike action on 5 November last year against the announcement of 100,000 job losses in the civil service that broke the log jam of inactivity that was so pronounced amongst British union leaders.
British workers need to follow the militancy of the French workers in recent years in their battle against their government's attempts to cut the welfare state and attempts to increase the working week, rather than the right-wing union leaders' appeals to reason with the bosses.
Although union members know that they have to defend their own members' interests and may be prepared to fight alone if necessary, it is much better to fight together.
In order for the government to drop their plans altogether, it will require more than one-day strikes. Public-sector unions need to call a conference of union national executives to hammer out a programme of action on pensions, privatisation and job cuts.
Real plans must now be made for further action after 23 March. The council workers' "discontinuous" ballot means that they can take strike action again after Easter, allowing for pressure to be applied to other unions, such as the education unions and firefighters to come on board, if there is no movement from the employers.
A preparedness to use militant industrial action and the collective strength of union members, rather than press conferences or Parliamentary lobbies, is what is needed to force this government and the employers to retreat.
In The Socialist 26 February 2005: