Archive article from The Socialist Issue 378
Pensions - turn anger into action!
MEMBERS OF public-sector union UNISON, who work for local councils throughout the country, are overwhelmingly voting for industrial action to defend their pensions. This follows the government's claim that public-sector workers are living too long and should therefore have their pension rights cut!
UNISON members have just finished an indicative ballot. That will now be followed by an industrial action ballot in February, with a view to possible strike action in the week beginning 21 March. Other public-sector unions are under increasing pressure to give a lead and organise their own ballots with a view to uniting the struggles.
So, is there a chance of coordinated public-sector strike action to defend pensions?
Public-sector unions met last to week to discuss the TUC day of action on 18 February, called in protest at the threat to public-sector workers' pensions.
But what was missing from that meeting was any serious move to unite public-sector workers through strike action. Instead, we are told that 18 February will be restricted to regional events and "protests to your local MP".
If the 18 February activities were part of a campaign to get support amongst public-sector workers and throughout the working class for future strike action that would be a legitimate tactic. But, unfortunately, we have been down this path many times before. For the union leaders to be forced into decisive action and co-ordinate strike action to defeat the attacks, they still need the maximum pressure from below.
New Labour has got away with massive attacks and privatisation of the public sector in the past because unions were not prepared to co-ordinate millions of workers in strike across the public sector. The unifying effect of the attack on pension rights, which may seem on the surface to affect "only" older workers, has been rightly seen as a step too far by much wider sections of workers.
Huge attacks on workers' conditions
COUNCIL WORKERS face the first wave of pension attacks from April 2005. This will be followed by further cuts in 2008 and 2013. Civil servants, teachers, firefighters, lecturers and others are facing major attacks on pensions from April 2006.
Changes to pension rights will affect different sections of public-sector workers differently, depending on their age and other factors.
But, for all public-sector workers, the changes are there for the sole purpose - to cut the amount paid to public-sector workers in their future pensions.
It's estimated that the government hopes to save up to 20% of its annual public-sector pension costs through a combination of measures - mainly by forcing workers to work five more years and restricting the right to retire at 60 with full pension entitlement.
Most public-sector workers will in future be unable to draw upon their occupational pensions (as opposed to the state pension) until they are 65 rather than the present level of 60 in most of the public sector (for firefighters and police it is at age 50).
Workers see this change to their occupational pension - which they view as "deferred" wages - as effectively a huge attack on their pay and conditions.
Needed - coordinated action
IN THE UNISON local government indicative ballot, an overwhelming majority voted for action. It was clear from branch feedback that a big majority of members, whether they are affected from April 2005 or later, are prepared to take industrial action if the government does not withdraw its threat to their pensions.
The government co-ordination of its attacks on public-sector pensions has put increasing pressure on trade union leaders to deliver a co-ordinated response. Many workers now expect, irrespective of the different starting dates to pension changes, their leaders to co-ordinate strike action based on the simple idea that unity is strength.
Will this happen? Will the trade union leaders act together or separately, or at all?
At the PCS civil servants' union national executive, general secretary Mark Serwotka and Janice Godrich the union's president, were mandated to contact other union leaders to seek a common day of strike action.
A recall PCS national executive around 31 January will hear the report back and, if indications are positive, set in motion a national industrial action ballot from 14 February of all PCS members in the civil service, with a view to co-ordinating the strike action with other unions.
WHENEVER THE pensions attack begins, there has never been a better time to take action. New Labour is especially vulnerable in the period just before a general election.
Blair does not want the threat of strike action hanging over him in this period.
That is not to say he wouldn't go ahead anyway but public-sector workers see a clear opportunity opening up for action.
Possibly the government could be forced to adjourn the immediate changes to council workers' pensions and instead put them back to next year in line with other public-sector workers.
UNISON members, however, are up for action and it would be extremely difficult for the leadership to either call off the ballot or call off a strike without a clear sign of a government climb-down.
If this happened, then it would be viewed as having come about through threatened strike action. It would give a massive boost to all public-sector workers and would push the unions to continue campaigning against the pension attacks still pending by taking up the wider case of the need for industrial action to defend all the public sector.
But even the issue of united action on the same day, whilst important, should not be used to cut across the unions preparing to fight to defend their own members' interests first and foremost; even if that meant that teachers and lecturers, for example, would have to take action in term time because some schools and colleges are on Easter holidays from 21 March and could not strike alongside UNISON, should they stick to their 23 March date.
For teachers and lecturers to be involved means the planned strike by council workers, (perhaps civil servants as well) should be brought forward to the week beginning 14 March.
Even if the joint strike action by unions doesn't come about before the general election, this does not mean that the issue has gone away. Unions should still prepare for joint action to defend pensions and the public sector.
That promises to be the crucial post-election battleground. Tony Blair and New Labour seem intent on smashing trade unions in the public sector, similar to Thatcher's attack on the miners 20 years ago. Union leaders must not be let off the hook.
Now is the time for firm, decisive and above all united action.
Socialist Party members have been to the fore in the public-sector unions in calling for a one-day, public-sector strike to defend the public sector.
The next few weeks represent a real opportunity for this demand to be turned into action.
New Socialist Party pamphlet -
The Great Pensions Robbery
Out soon. Price £2.
For orders etc, ring Ken Smith on 020 8988 8778 or write to the socialist, PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD.