Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/385/4349
What we think
Anger turns to action over pensions
LOCAL GOVERNMENT and civil service workers have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action to defend their pensions. The ballot results show the deep welling up of anger against the New Labour government on this and many other issues.
Strike action on 23 March and afterwards could have a transforming effect on the outlook and confidence of British workers. This action could be the biggest strike for over 20 years and could be the beginning of British workers catching up with other workers across Europe in the scale and intensity of industrial struggle.
In local government the unions involved - UNISON, TGWU, Amicus and Ucatt - returned huge majorities for action - 73% to 87% voting in favour, with UNISON achieving a 26% turnout and the other unions around 20%.
The PCS civil service union also delivered an excellent and decisive majority of 66.7% for action on a turnout of 39%, reflecting the increased awareness that has been built up amongst PCS members through struggle and having a determined left-wing leadership.
The public-sector union in Northern Ireland, NIPSA, also voted overwhelmingly in favour of action.
Even the GMB union, which initially was not holding a ballot, voted for action in four regions. And the top civil servants in the First Division Association also voted for action - opening up the prospect of Sir Humphreys picketing Downing Street and other high-level government offices.
The National Union of Teachers has agreed to a national ballot for a national one-day strike after their indicative ballot showed 70% in favour of a one-day strike on a 26% turnout. Along with lecturers' union Natfhe, currently balloting with a view to action in April, it is possible that the NUT and other unions, including teachers and lecturers in Scotland could join them.
Many Socialist Party members active in the trade unions report an angry mood building in their workplaces. One member reported that in his 30 years of membership of the party and leading positions in his union that "the last week is perhaps the best I have ever spent as a union activist."
The pensions 'crisis' is becoming a catalyst for all the accumulated grievances built up against New Labour. Underlying all of this is a desire and realisation that workers should all come out together in strike action against the government.
THIS GROWING momentum towards action has forced a government, who said increasing the retirement age was "non-negotiable", to scurry back to the negotiating table. Despite the talks between local government unions and Prescott breaking up without agreement, some union leaders proclaimed the ballot results as a mandate for "more talks to avert a pensions strike". As we go to press, further talks are scheduled.
The government is on the back foot on many issues at present and is looking increasingly ragged. Blair has talked about 'joined-up' government, but the only thing they are producing at present is 'joined-up' anger.
Workers will realise that this is a fantastic opportunity to force the government to fully retreat with all its pension plans for the public sector.
Whilst the unions could force the government to temporarily retreat in a negotiated settlement, there is only one way to achieve this. The unions must show they are mobilising the biggest possible show of strength for 23 March and that they are prepared to escalate the action, if necessary, in the run-up to the general election to ensure the government is forced to withdraw all its pension plans.
The unions should also organise a national demonstration on a Saturday in mid-April to mobilise private-sector workers, who have been especially hammered on pension rights, alongside public-sector workers who are taking action to make it the number one issue in the general election. The unions need to show that they are taking up the plight of all workers and fighting for a decent state pension.
Even if the government come up with some concessions or a more substantial retreat, union members will have to be made aware that this is the initial skirmish before a more protracted battle. In this battle the New Labour government (or a Tory government if it were to be elected) want to make huge cuts in public service provision and smash the terms and conditions and trade union organisation of public-sector workers.
The capitalist class have in their sights the savings of hundreds of billions on the issue of pensions and they will not let any government escape from this task for very long.
Public-sector unions have the responsibility of defending their own members first and foremost. But there is a growing realisation amongst trade union members, after the defeat of the firefighters for example, that whilst you have to be prepared to fight alone if necessary it is more effective to take action together.
The government's frightened response to the threat of a co-ordinated one-day public-sector strike action bears out the potential there is to inflict a real and lasting defeat on this weakened New Labour government.
In The Socialist 19 March 2005: