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Pensions: No concessions by 'negotiation'
FOLLOWING THE Labour government's hasty retreat on their proposed cuts in public-sector workers' pensions in the face of united strike action, three government ministers met the leaders of all the public sector unions last Thursday, 31 March.
Reports from the meeting show that the government is desperate to keep the union leaders on side so they will not cause them any more problems before the election.
The coming together of all the public-sector unions in defence of pension rights was a massive step forward. It was the threat of strike action and nothing else which forced the government to retreat. The left in the unions now have to make sure that their leaders do not lose in the negotiating chamber what has been won through militant action.
Mark Serwotka, on behalf of PCS, has pushed for the unions to agree that they maintain maximum unity in front of the government and negotiate as far as possible as one body. This is to resist the changes that the government still obviously want to push through, especially the increase in the retirement age from 60 to 65.
Unfortunately (though not surprisingly) other union leaders appear not to want the PCS to be looking over their shoulders as they negotiate with the government over the precise proposals for their particular pensions schemes - such as in local government.
Alan Johnson, the minister for the Department for Work and Pensions and the minister appointed by Blair to get them out of the mess they were in, issued a joint letter after the meeting with Brendan Barber the TUC general secretary. Both sides seemingly agreed to: "recognise the effects that demographic changes are having upon the sustainability of pension schemes".
This diplomatic language should not hide the fact that there are irreconcilable differences between what the government wants and what the workers need. The union leaders are under tremendous pressure from their members not to accept any changes to the pension schemes that make them worse off. And an increase in retirement age does just that.
The meeting agreed that it would continue to play the role as a "public services forum" to oversee and co-ordinate negotiations.
Socialist Party members in the public-sector unions will be calling for the left in the unions to come together. They need to hammer out a programme to ensure that the union leaders are kept under the maximum pressure to defend pensions and not to concede anything less by "negotiation".
If the negotiations become bogged down - and it becomes increasingly clear that New Labour are just trying to buy time - the unions should be prepared to call on their members to demonstrate in action that they mean business.
This action should endeavour to bring into the struggle as many workers as possible.
Each union has a responsibility to defend their own pension rights. It may be necessary to do just that but it would be even better if the unions strike together as one united fighting force.
In The Socialist 7 April 2005: