The Socialist 19 March 2005 |
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Anger turns to action over pensions
LOCAL GOVERNMENT and civil service workers have voted overwhelmingly in
favour of strike action to defend their pensions. The ballot results show the
deep welling up of anger against the New Labour government on this and many
Strike action on 23 March and afterwards could have a transforming effect
on the outlook and confidence of British workers. This action could be the
biggest strike for over 20 years and could be the beginning of British workers
catching up with other workers across Europe in the scale and intensity of
In local government the unions involved - UNISON, TGWU, Amicus and Ucatt -
returned huge majorities for action - 73% to 87% voting in favour, with UNISON
achieving a 26% turnout and the other unions around 20%.
The PCS civil service union also delivered an excellent and decisive
majority of 66.7% for action on a turnout of 39%, reflecting the increased
awareness that has been built up amongst PCS members through struggle and
having a determined left-wing leadership.
The public-sector union in Northern Ireland, NIPSA, also voted
overwhelmingly in favour of action.
Even the GMB union, which initially was not holding a ballot, voted for
action in four regions. And the top civil servants in the First Division
Association also voted for action - opening up the prospect of Sir Humphreys
picketing Downing Street and other high-level government offices.
The National Union of Teachers has agreed to a national ballot for a
national one-day strike after their indicative ballot showed 70% in favour of
a one-day strike on a 26% turnout. Along with lecturers' union Natfhe,
currently balloting with a view to action in April, it is possible that the
NUT and other unions, including teachers and lecturers in Scotland could join
Many Socialist Party members active in the trade unions report an angry
mood building in their workplaces. One member reported that in his 30 years of
membership of the party and leading positions in his union that "the last week
is perhaps the best I have ever spent as a union activist."
The pensions 'crisis' is becoming a catalyst for all the accumulated
grievances built up against New Labour. Underlying all of this is a desire and
realisation that workers should all come out together in strike action against
THIS GROWING momentum towards action has forced a government, who said
increasing the retirement age was "non-negotiable", to scurry back to the
negotiating table. Despite the talks between local government unions and
Prescott breaking up without agreement, some union leaders proclaimed the
ballot results as a mandate for "more talks to avert a pensions strike". As we
go to press, further talks are scheduled.
The government is on the back foot on many issues at present and is looking
increasingly ragged. Blair has talked about 'joined-up' government, but the
only thing they are producing at present is 'joined-up' anger.
Workers will realise that this is a fantastic opportunity to force the
government to fully retreat with all its pension plans for the public sector.
Whilst the unions could force the government to temporarily retreat in a
negotiated settlement, there is only one way to achieve this. The unions must
show they are mobilising the biggest possible show of strength for 23 March
and that they are prepared to escalate the action, if necessary, in the run-up
to the general election to ensure the government is forced to withdraw all its
The unions should also organise a national demonstration on a Saturday in
mid-April to mobilise private-sector workers, who have been especially
hammered on pension rights, alongside public-sector workers who are taking
action to make it the number one issue in the general election. The unions
need to show that they are taking up the plight of all workers and fighting
for a decent state pension.
Even if the government come up with some concessions or a more substantial
retreat, union members will have to be made aware that this is the initial
skirmish before a more protracted battle. In this battle the New Labour
government (or a Tory government if it were to be elected) want to make huge
cuts in public service provision and smash the terms and conditions and trade
union organisation of public-sector workers.
The capitalist class have in their sights the savings of hundreds of
billions on the issue of pensions and they will not let any government escape
from this task for very long.
Public-sector unions have the responsibility of defending their own members
first and foremost. But there is a growing realisation amongst trade union
members, after the defeat of the firefighters for example, that whilst you
have to be prepared to fight alone if necessary it is more effective to take
The government's frightened response to the threat of a co-ordinated
one-day public-sector strike action bears out the potential there is to
inflict a real and lasting defeat on this weakened New Labour government.