Blair’s pensions climbdown

THE THREAT of coordinated strike action by public-sector unions
over the issue of pensions on 23 March has forced a major climb-down by
the government.

Ken Smith

Although most activists are aware that this will be a temporary
retreat by the government, buying time and breathing space in the run-up
to the general election, nevertheless as the Financial Times commented:
"The retreat is a huge climb-down by ministers."

According to the Financial Times, the threat of strike action on
Wednesday 23 March provoked "a tense cabinet discussion" where
"Mr Blair told colleagues that the negotiations were not

In the face of over one million angry workers taking strike
action, with the prospect of others joining them in the run-up to the
general election, the government has effectively caved in.

But they have caved in such a way that will give workers confidence
that they can win and force a complete retreat from the government over
their plans to raise the retirement age for public-sector workers from
60-65 and worsen their pension entitlement.

A panicked Blair instructed Alan Johnson, the Department for Works
and Pensions Secretary of State, to sort out the problem.

A day later a letter went from Johnson to TUC general secretary
Brendan Barber.

In the letter Johnson recognised the unions’ concerns that the
"government was proceeding by diktat"… "that there had
not been genuine dialogue" and that "it was time to make a
fresh start".

He promised that the government would give "assurances that
these would be genuine negotiations… on all levels of change" and
concluded that he hoped this would enough "for the unions to call
off the action on 23 March."

The government has promised to revoke the regulations to change the
local government pension scheme from 1 April "at the earliest
possible opportunity". A letter was due to go from the head of the
civil service to the civil service unions saying that the same applies
to the proposed changes to civil service pensions.

It is likely that the same will apply to health and education pension
scheme proposals.

Interviewed on Radio 5 on 19 March, Alan Johnson was reminded that
the government had said only a few weeks ago that the raising of the
public-sector retirement age from 60 to 65 was
"non-negotiable" to which he replied:

"What can I say, Mea Culpa. We got it wrong."