Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/436/5155
What we think
Local government pensions battle
Keep up the pressure on bosses and union leaders
ON 28 MARCH over one million local government workers went on strike to defend their pensions. Now the unions involved have decided to suspend further strikes on the promise of talks with the employers. This is a tactical error that does not bode well for the outcome of the talks themselves.
As Glenn Kelly, a Socialist Party member and member of Unison's NEC and Service Group Executive (SGE) for local government, said: "why do we have to call off the action when we have the employers by the throat".
The employers themselves did not even threaten that they wouldn't enter into talks unless the action was called off. It seems that it came entirely from the union side and in particular from Brendan Barber the TUC general secretary who, according to the Financial Times, brokered the peace formula.
This does not mean that that there will not be a deal. The most probable outcome is that there will be a deal that gives protection to the 1.2 million existing members of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS).
The actuaries (so-called pensions experts brought in by the employers) had already indicated that the 'savings' from the abolition of the "85 year rule" would be £8 billion. Whilst the cost of allowing existing scheme members the right to retire at 60 without it cutting their pensions by 30% (as the government is proposing in making its changes to the scheme) would be some £5 billion.
However, such a deal cannot be guaranteed. As Glenn explained at the SGE, there was no need to call off the regional strikes planned for 25 to 27 April. If the employer was 'all ready to make this concession', as union leaders claimed, then they could have been made to do so now rather than letting the talks drag on until June, which is when they are expected to conclude. Glenn called for full consultation with the membership before any deal is signed.
None of the main political parties want to be seen to be signing a deal that the press would interpret as adding to the council tax (even though this would be untrue given the level of savings that the employers are going to get anyway). The main reason that the trade union leaders called off the strikes to allow talks was to "spare the Labour Party embarrassment in the run up to the local elections at the beginning of May" (Financial Times 13 April).
Once again those unions that are closest to the Labour government and the Labour Party are prepared to make concessions to the bosses rather than represent the real interests of their members.
It is mass action that has and is forcing concessions from the bosses not any 'influence' with the Labour government. The effects of the mass strike action on 28 March put the fear of God not only into the bosses but also the union leaders.
They must have looked across the channel to the example of the French workers and saw how the union leaders over there did not have full control of events. Brendan Barber and his ilk will do all they can to stop this happening here.
The tabloid press have talked about "a climb-down" by the government in face of "strong arm union tactics". But this is just a continuation of the right-wing press propaganda, constantly demanding that public-sector workers suffer the same fate as private-sector workers who have seen their occupational pension schemes disappear.
Rolls Royce, for example, are currently attempting to end the final salary defined pension rights of 120,000 members of their pension funds.
The right-wing press is doing its level best to paint lurid pictures of "feather bedded public sector workers" with "gold plated pensions". But in fact the average pension of a female local government worker is no more than £31 per week.
But this doesn't stop the rabid right from fulminating that this "has to be stopped now". Unfortunately for them, workers in the public sector have demonstrated that they will fight to keep the gains made in a previous period.
Unity in action has been the most positive aspect of the pensions struggle. But if it was up to most of the union leaders then they would long ago have capitulated to the demands of the bosses.
It has been the massive pressure from below that has stopped them up to now. Only by maintaining that pressure, not just on the bosses but also on the union leaders, can local government workers get at least the same sort of deal as the rest of the public sector - protection for existing members which is the main demand of local government workers themselves.
The attacks on public-sector pensions have seen a step back for new scheme members and a united struggle will be needed to change this in the future.
In The Socialist 20 April 2006:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party election campaign
Workplace news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis