The Socialist 30 March 2006
Stop the NHS jobs massacre
28 March national pensions strike
Pensions' strikers say...
'Time for a new working-class party'
HUNDREDS OF striking local government workers signed the declaration for a new workers' party on the picket lines on 28 March. They were outraged that their union leaders have been donating millions of pounds to a Labour Party that then turns round and attacks their pensions.
GLENN KELLY is a local government representative on the national executive council of UNISON. He was elected trade union liaison officer at the Campaign for a New Workers' Party (CNWP) conference on 19 March and spoke to the socialist in that capacity.
UNISON shamed into freezing support for Labour
ON THE local government pension picket lines, many signed the declaration in support of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. New Labour's attack on pensions has made many UNISON members angrily question why their union funds are still going to Labour Party. This anger has now percolated to the union's leaders.
At the last meeting of UNISON's ruling National Executive Council (NEC), North West NEC member Roger Bannister asked if there was any truth in the rumour that the union's Labour Link organisation had taken a decision not to recommend support for New Labour in the municipal elections in May.
The question was greeted with a derisive snort from the chairperson of the Labour Link, who strongly denied any truth in this rumour.
Since then however it seems that harsh reality has struck home even within the barricaded confines of the Labour Link, which carried the following resolution at its last meeting:
This unprecedented step is clearly welcome and well in line with the actual views of the members whose pensions are being attacked by the New Labour government. But why stop with the pensions dispute? New Labour has privatised schools, housing and vast tracts of the National Health Service. It is time that we used the political fund to support politicians that supported us, and not vice versa!
Escalate the strike action
OVER ONE million local government workers joined the one-day strike on 28 March to defend their current pension entitlements. They showed the volcanic anger amongst working-class people against Blair and the Labour government.
Council workers are rightly furious about attempts to strip their relatively meagre pension entitlement when government ministers, MPs and fat cats have protected their sumptuous pensions. Female local government workers get on average £31 a week in their pension packet compared to the £700-plus a week that MPs can get.
This was the biggest co-ordinated strike action for over two decades and a strike that government and union leaders had wanted to avoid.
In March and October 2005 the government, realising the balance of forces weighed against it when two previous pensions' strikes were looming, retreated and ring-fenced existing workers' conditions in the health sector, education and the civil service. Since then it retreated further over firefighters' pensions and gave protection to existing firefighters' pension schemes.
Local government union leaders had assumed, wrongly, that the government would automatically give the same protection to existing local government workers. But, the government was caught in a bind between the intransigence of the Tory-controlled local government employers' association and the government's own inability to find enough 'wriggle room' to allow union leaders to call off threatened action.
The government had thought it could offer an inferior deal to local government workers than to other public-sector workers and get away with it. However, such is the mood amongst local government workers that their union leaders know they could accept nothing less than what was previously offered to other public-sector workers.
Pay limits threat
ADDING FUEL to the flames the Blair/Brown government ann-ounced in last week's budget that it was imposing a public-sector pay limit of 2.2% (except for nurses) and carrying out further massive job cuts in the public sector - especially in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Little wonder then that even the UNISON Affiliated Political Fund (Labour Link) was obliged last week to suspend support for New Labour in the May elections while industrial action continues.
Local government workers need to put pressure on their union leaders to develop a coherent strategy for winning their pensions dispute. At present, the leaders are sending out mixed messages on how the struggle is to be developed if the government doesn't back down after the recent action.
At local level, union activists organised effectively for the strike day to ensure the strike action would bite. At national and regional level, however, union leaders kept inter-union co-operation to a minimum, tried to play the strike down and organised low-key rallies rather than marches to bring striking members of all unions together.
The bigger unions, like UNISON, tried to give the appearance of having a strategy to take the strike forward - including selective action, regional action in April and a further two days of strike action on 4 and 5 May.
The socialist has pointed out before that selective action should only be an auxiliary to more generalised action involving all the workers. In itself, selective action cannot be the way forward for this strike. And, whilst regional strikes and the strikes planned for 4-5 May will be welcomed, there will also be doubts - given the emphasis on selective action - that union leaders have mapped out their current 'strategy' only as an attempt to frighten the government.
Past experience, however, shows that it is more often the union leaders who take fright when the government digs its heels in. Union activists should now demand, following the buoyant mood of the first strike day, that their unions escalate the strike action to two or three days within the next few weeks to build on, rather than dissipate, the mood.
ALTHOUGH THE government was forced to partially retreat last year on pensions, it is clear, given Brown's budget attacks on public-sector workers, that whoever is prime minister in this Labour administration will make further swingeing cuts in public spending and public-sector jobs.
Local government unions should urgently demand that other unions and the TUC give them maximum support by calling an emergency national demonstration on pensions.
The plan announced by British Airways last week to make its existing workers work five years longer for their pensions - along with the half a million workers robbed of their pensions in recent years - shows the urgent need to draw private-sector workers into this struggle as well.
The fight for a decent pension for all workers, as well as defending the public sector, is an ongoing battle that needs to be fought industrially and politically. UNISON members, along with members of other unions affiliated to Labour, should demand that they pay no further money to Labour full stop. Instead their unions should use their money and energy to support a campaign for a new workers' party that will seriously fight for the interests of working-class people.
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