Defend public sector pensions – action must be escalated

John McInally, Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) national vice-president (personal capacity)
Marching on the 30 November public sector strike, photo by Paul Mattsson

Marching on the 30 November public sector strike, photo by Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The current battle over pensions is a defining one for our movement. Over two million workers from 24 unions took action together on 30th November in the biggest show of strength in living memory.

This show of solidarity and determination gave hope to millions beyond the trade union movement who are looking for a lead against a government which is carrying out the most breathtaking transfer of wealth and power in British history through a cuts and privatisation programme in the interests of the banking and business elite and against that of 99% of the population.

Continued below:

PCS Left Unity open organising conference in defence of pensions

Saturday 7 January, 11am – 4pm

Friends Meeting House, (opposite Euston station, London)

Chair: Janice Godrich, PCS president


  • Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary
  • John McDonnell MP
  • Kevin Courtney, National Union of Teachers deputy general secretary (personal capacity)
  • Roger Bannister, Unison executive (personal capacity)
  • Padraig Mulholland, Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance vice-president (personal capacity)
  • Mark Campbell, University and College Union executive (personal capacity)
  • Zita Holbourne, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts
  • Kevin Donnelly, Unite United Left

We would urge all activists on the left from all unions to build for this event which will be an open democratic forum.

(Continued from above)

Most working people instinctively know that the best way to confront this government’s attacks is through the organised strength of the trade union movement.

Defeating the attacks on pensions would not only defend the terms and conditions of millions of mainly low-paid public sector workers but would also create a firm platform on which to challenge the wider cuts programme itself.

Workers took action on pensions because they are being forced to pay more, get less and work longer. They know there is no need for this attack whatsoever, it is the imposition of a tax on public sector workers as the money stolen from them will go into the Treasury coffers in order to help pay the deficit created by Cameron’s banking cronies rather than to the pension funds themselves.

Public sector pensions are affordable, sustainable and falling in cost. The attack, like the cuts more generally, is ideological and part of a systematic attempt to destroy the public sector in this country which has been deemed too expensive by the bankers and big business.

John Cridland, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, gave the game away when he said that public sector pensions must be reformed in order to make outsourcing affordable.

PCS warned in the summer that entering sector negotiations allowed the government an opportunity to divide the unions.

We argued that the core issues of paying more, getting less and working longer must be addressed collectively.

It was only the arrogance of Maude and Alexander in refusing even the most marginal concessions in sector negotiations, reflecting their view that union leaders had ‘no stomach for a fight’ that forced the TUC and union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison into accepting there must be action.

Barber and Prentis were dragged reluctantly to action despite attempts to stop the action with ‘concessions’ which were marginal, didn’t address the core issues and were ‘too little, too late’.

Drive for ‘agreement’

The strike’s success shook the leadership of the TUC almost as much as the government. It became clear at meetings of the TUC’s Public Sector Liaison Group (PSLG) that the imperative was agreement at any price.

At the PSLG Brendan Barber presented a “Heads of Agreement” with the government for unions to take back to their executives.

This proposed conceding the core issues of paying more, getting less and working longer completely, just as the government demanded.

The deal in local government was particularly lauded but in reality the only ‘concessions’ were more talks but without addressing the core issues, with an implementation delay until 2014 when these workers will be hit with the full force of the changes.

PCS has rejected the Heads of Agreement because they did not offer any movement on the core issues. We argued that the unions should stick together until there is collective agreement, and that the government must concede more money.

The reality was that no progress had been made and workers did not take strike action just to achieve “damage limitation”, one argument used for accepting the deal.

PCS believes the only legitimate response is to have further national coordinated industrial action as early as possible in 2012 and for the PSLG on 12th January to name the day.

The direction of travel was clear though and it was obvious that the TUC leadership, with Dave Prentis and Barber as the prime movers, wanted a deal at any price.

The government demanded that the Heads of Agreement be recommended to union executives and strikes would be called off.

Then this was amended to it being taken to executives and strikes are not called: distinctions that might not be too obviously apparent to most workers.

The reality is that the TUC is arguing for capitulation with all that implies, it will embolden the government to deepen and widen its attacks. 100,000 workers joined unions on the basis of the action, many more would be recruited on the basis of further struggle.

Layers of workers and beyond will be demoralised by the signals coming out from the TUC but many will be angry.

Cuts accepted

Why is the TUC leadership behaving like this? The truth is they have no confidence in trade union members or the working class generally to struggle.

In reality they accept that the cuts are necessary and will go ahead, their argument that the cuts are too deep and too fast reflects the view of the Labour Party and Miliband, who refused to support the strike.

They have no alternative to the cuts and simply think the government and the bankers are too powerful.

The deal is going to union executives for discussion and activists must now do all they can to ensure the campaign is built and not dissipated.

We must demand a day for action is called at the PSLG on 12th January, that action must be escalated by bringing more unions on board including private sector workers like those in Unilever, and demand the government provides more money to resolve the three core areas of working longer, paying more and getting less.

PCS has been at the forefront of the battle to defend pensions and it is clear the government is targeting our union as the ‘problem’.

Press attacks on general secretary Mark Serwotka and the union are reaching fever pitch, the accusation that Mark did not attend any negotiations for example, is a plain lie. PCS has not walked away from talks, it has been excluded.

PCS Left Unity has called a conference on Saturday 7th January between 11am and 4pm at the Friends Meeting House in Euston, London, to debate how we can build the campaign to defend our pensions and fight the cuts and prevent any unacceptable deal that makes us pay more, get less and work longer.

This will be an organising conference intended to arm activists to go back into their workplaces, branches and executives to build the campaign.

All activists from all unions are invited and we would urge all activists on the left to build for this event which will be an open democratic forum.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 21 December 2011 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.