The Socialist 19 March 2005 |
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Why we voted to strike to defend pensions
TENS OF thousands of public-sector workers have voted to strike to fight
the government's attempts to raise their retirement age and make them pay more
for an inferior pension.
The ballots show votes for action ranging from 67% to
87% by members of civil service union PCS and local government unions UNISON,
Amicus, TGWU and UCATT. GMB members are still voting in some areas, but a
majority for action is expected.
National Union of Teachers members and members of other teaching unions,
are likely to follow suit in the next few weeks.
Trade unionists from across the public sector spoke to the socialist about
the anger of their members over the pensions issue.
THE KEY to the pensions struggle is the unity that can be forged across the
public sector trade unions. People object to having their pensions being used
as a political football for the benefit of the New Labour government.
Blair thinks that he can tough it out and show how hard he is with the
trade unions. His problem is that he looks at the trade unions as just another
But taking on pressure groups is totally different from taking on big
sections of the working class. I think Blair may well learn that lesson over
the next few months.
Roger Bannister, member of UNISON's national executive council
THE GOVERNMENT'S attack on their pensions has created massive anger amongst
council workers across Scotland.
These workers are ready to take action to defend what is of course their
"deferred pay", and many are becoming increasingly disgusted by Labour
politicians implying that pension entitlements are somehow a gift rather than
a right based on a worker's own contributions and conditions of service.
Workers are also making the connection between Labour's unlimited pot of
money for war and destruction in Iraq and the claims that: "the country cannot
afford public sector pensions".
Brian Smith UNISON Steward, social work department Glasgow city council
MY UNISON branch sent a letter to our local MP, Hazel Blears, about the
changes to the local government pension scheme. Her reply, which stated it
was: "dictated by Ms Blears and signed in her absence" was in fact identical
to a government newsletter.
If she can't be bothered to send a proper reply to a 5,000-strong UNISON
branch, imagine how she feels about individual constituents!
Robert Jones, Salford city UNISON, personal capacity
I HAVE rarely experienced such a strong feeling on any issue, as on the
issue of pensions. Members feel they've been let down badly and cheated by
this government. I've addressed a number of meetings in the past week,
including the very well-attended conference of NATFHE in Wales, where over 100
representatives from colleges and universities were present.
That meeting unanimously agreed to campaign for massive 'yes' vote in the
ballot. And to my knowledge where the same motion is put in workplace
meetings, it's been carried enthusiastically and unanimously.
Andrew Price, NATFHE national executive council member for Wales
THE NATIONAL Union of Teachers (NUT) conference this Easter will be united
in wanting the debates on pensions to take centre stage.
We have to voice the anger of teachers who know that the stress of working
in our underfunded schools leaves many struggling to work on until 60, let
alone 65. We have to appeal for teachers in other unions such as the NASUWT to
join our action.
Most of all, delegates will want news of our debates to reach teachers back
in their homes. Hopefully it will be just the reminder members need to make
sure they return the strike ballot papers which will be reaching them over the
Based on the 70% support for one-day strike action in the union's
indicative "survey", the union can be confident of winning support for the
action, planned for the beginning of next term.
Martin Powell-Davies, Lewisham NUT conference delegate
THE MEMBERS have a totally different attitude on pensions to that of our
union leadership. The Health Service Group Executive has voted against any
ballot on action or even any vote on a vote.
The response we've had on that, particularly since we've learnt that our
branch secretary was one of those who voted against taking any form of action,
has been one of great anger. There's been emails flying around all over
between different ambulance stations.
We've got an annual general meeting coming up and we should see fireworks
there, that's for sure. The membership is not very happy at all with the way
the bureaucracy has acted on this. They want to be consulted and they want to
prepare for action on pensions.
They're still very much in the dark about Agenda for Change [the new
grading scheme for the health service]. And they don't know much about the
detail of the pensions issues, apart from the fact that they know they're
Now they learn that their union leadership has blithely gone ahead, ducking
and diving and trying to keep out of the way of any form of action. They're
very angry about that because they weren't consulted.
Steve Harbord, Ambulance station UNISON rep
Bosses rob private pensions
WORKERS IN private companies have suffered many attacks on their pension
rights. There has been a big drop in the number of workers entitled to any
sort of company pension at all over the last six years. Less than one in five
of workers in the hotel and restaurant sector has any pension. Two thirds of
men working in the construction sector have no pension.
During the 1980s and 1990s, when share prices were high, the Tories
encouraged the bosses to take pension 'holidays' - that is to stop paying into
company pension schemes. The workers of course had to carry on paying. The TUC
estimate that between 1987 and 2003, bosses robbed over £20 billion from
Bosses also increased their profits by about £4 billion by ending final
salary pension schemes, affecting over two million workers.
Further pension scandals include:
Pension mis-selling in the 1980s. The Tories removed the need for
occupational schemes to be compulsory. Some finance companies saw an
opportunity to make a quick profit and sold inferior pensions to thousands of
workers. Many are still fighting for compensation.
Robert Maxwell, the former owner of the Daily Mirror Group, used the
workers' pension fund to try to shore up his ailing company in the early
1990s. Maxwell committed suicide but thousands of pensioners are suffering
from this robbery.
40,000 existing and former workers at Turner and Newall are facing losing
their pension. The US owners of the car parts firm, Federal-Mogul have
withdrawn their offer to continue funding the pension scheme.
If the scheme is wound up, it would be the biggest closure of its kind and
it would mean existing workers getting less than 40% of what they were
Federal-Mogul was forced into bankruptcy protection because of its
liabilities for paying claims from former workers with asbestos-related health
Similar stories can be told by former workers at companies like ASW, United
Engineering Forgings and Dexion.
Job cuts threat to pensions
JOB CUTS in Labour's pensions service would undermine efforts to increase
the take-up of means-tested retirement benefits.
That was the warning from Parliament's work and pensions select committee,
which told the government to tackle a severe drop in the number of pensioners
collecting its top-up pension benefits before shedding hundreds of staff.
The pension credit scheme was introduced in 2003 to provide a minimum
income for poorer pensioners and also reward private savings.
2.65 million pensioner households, out of the 4.25 million thought
eligible, have signed up for this means-tested benefit.
So 1.6 million pensioner households are missing out on the extra income.
Last year Department for Work and Pensions figures showed Britain's poorest
families failed to claim up to £4.5 billion in means-tested benefits.
Charities like Help the Aged have taken the government to task for its
plans to cut pension service staff numbers by 60% over the next seven years
rather than taking action "to help pensioners navigate through its highly
complex system of means-testing."
The committee said the cuts are already hitting frontline services, with
local advice surgeries closing and 400 staff cut from local offices.