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Government climbs down but questions still remain
FACING THE possible threat of the biggest strike movement since 1926 it appears that the New Labour government has partially retreated from some of its plans on public-sector pensions - such as increasing the retirement age of existing public-sector workers from 60 to 65.
The government has outlined a framework agreement where existing members of the civil service, health and education schemes have their current conditions protected. This is a significant retreat by New Labour and has come about because of the threat of strike action.
Yet, the underlying fear and anger workers feel over their future pension rights will not go away on the basis of the deal. In the private sector many workers still face huge cuts in their pensions. The lesson that the threat of united, industrial action brings concessions will not be lost on them.
The government has no doubt also looked at the strike action of workers in France and Belgium against pension changes and thought better of taking on public-sector workers at this stage, despite Blair's confrontational statements at the TUC.
DESPITE THE government's partial retreat, they still appear to want to introduce a two-tier pension system throughout the public sector, with new entrants working till they are 65. And changes to the local government and fire service pension schemes - including raising the retirement age - still remain intact.
Last week the local government sector executive of UNISON, the largest local government union, took the decision to ballot for strike action if the government goes ahead and imposes the changes by 3 November.
The TUC says, however, it hopes to "see the same progress made in local government."
The deal for health, education and civil service workers is now "being recommended to public-sector unions for endorsement."
Members of unions in those sectors will be keen to see the details of the proposed deal and how it affects not only them but future generations of entrants into those sectors.
They will also want to consider the consequences of accepting what will effectively be two-tier conditions for the public-sector workforce, and in particular what it implies for possible future battles over job cuts and spending cuts.
According to the TUC, "the government has accepted that today's public-sector staff should not have their pension promises broken and need suffer no detriment in their pensions arrangement". But it's clear that this will not apply in the same way to the next generation of public-sector workers.
Union members in the civil service, health and education will need to ensure that the full details of any deal are given to all the members for consultation and put to special conferences or members' meetings or ballots.
Possibly the cabinet may have done its sums and decided that, despite Blair's intent to take on public-sector unions, that the savings it hoped to make by increasing the retirement age did not merit facing the threat of a virtual general strike of public-sector workers. Even the pro-Labour Daily Mirror said in its 18 October editorial: "It would be a serious mistake if the government tried to impose a higher retirement age on public workers."
Yet, with the Turner Commission reporting at the end of November and flagging up possible increases in the state retirement age to 67 or 70, then the TUC Congress decision to call a national pensions demo - uniting public-sector workers, private sector workers and pensioners - is still an urgent necessity.
And the government still wants to make huge savings in cutting pension entitlements for all workers and future generations of pensioners. The trade union movement still has the responsibility to conduct a struggle that ensures working-class people as a whole suffer no further detriment to their pension entitlement - now and in the future.
That means mobilising the latent strength of the workers' movement to fight for decent pensions for all. United struggle can end the nightmare of insecure retirement that the capitalist system means for most working people in this country.
In The Socialist 20 October 2005: