The Socialist 21 July 2009 |
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Union action to fight the attacks on our pensions
FOLLOWING AN avalanche of private sector 'final salary' occupational pension scheme closures, the employers and the establishment political parties are baying for a similar fate for workers in the public sector. A local government worker argues that the public sector unions must organise resistance to defend pensions.
ON 3 JULY Adair Turner - or to give him his bestowed title 'Lord Turner, Baron of Ecchinswell' - made public his concerns about the recommendations he made to the New Labour government in 2005 to raise the state retirement age to 70 by 2030.
Lord Turner did not express concern for the millions of workers forced to work further into an already impoverished retirement. Rather he stated that he felt his recommendations had not gone far enough. He insisted that 2030 is too far away and that if he were to do his report again he would suggest that the pensionable age should rise to 70 much more quickly.
In addition, Lord Turner joined the long line of wealthy politicians to attack one of the remaining benefits of public sector employment, 'final salary' pension schemes.
His justification was that a move to inferior 'average salary' pension schemes would be "more sustainable and more fair". Fair for who? Certainly not the millions of low-paid public sector workers, who have seen attacks on their terms and conditions for decades.
Fear of public outrage at a time of grave unpopularity for the government has meant that official responses to the comments have been rather muted.
However, a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions boasted to the BBC of the steps the government has already taken to attack public sector pensions, including the loss of a final salary pension scheme for all future employees in the civil service and an increased retirement age of 65.
Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are united in the view that we must work longer and that we must retire on less. Their attitude to pensions is representative of their attitude to the wider economic crisis - the working class must bear the burden.
The main parties claim that we face a "demographic timebomb" and that within a few years we could find ourselves in a situation where the economy will not be able to sustain the numbers of people living in retirement. To quote David Cameron, we must all enter an "age of austerity" - we must all make sacrifices.
They clearly aren't expecting sacrifices to be made by the likes of disgraced ex-RBS boss Fred Goodwin, or the other bankers still receiving bonuses despite their role in triggering this recession.
They expect the sacrifices to be made by public sector workers already facing tens of thousands of job losses as a result of billions of pounds in "efficiency savings".
They expect the savings to be made by private sector workers who have received such brutal attacks on their pensions in recent years, that to them final salary pension schemes are virtually extinct.
They expect the sacrifices to be made by the people who live in the most deprived areas of the UK. In Glasgow men are only expected to live until 69 - the government's proposals would mean death before retirement.
The response of the trade union leaders to the consistent attacks on their members' pensions has varied. In 2006, the left-led PCS, through a determined battle with the government, was able to defend its members' right to retire at 60 on a final salary pension scheme.
At the same time, the New Labour-fixated Unison leadership rewarded its local government members' overwhelming support for a one-day strike by calling off further action and meekly accepting that only those workers who would be 60 before 2016 and had performed 25 years service could go at that age. This was called a "victory" despite only applying to a small minority of the membership.
There is a tacit acceptance that we will have to pay more and our bosses may get to pay less, that we will have to retire later, that we may even have to look at other options aside from final salary schemes. Our union leaders, with some notable exceptions, expect us to make other sacrifices also.
The idea of taking action to defend our right to a decent pension is scoffed at - the fight to defend the Local Government Pensions Scheme was not even discussed at this year's Unison conference. The tone of the leadership was that Unison is not strong enough to fight on pay, never mind pensions!
The lack of confidence of these trade union leaders creates pessimism amongst the members, and thus a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeatism is born.
Given the right leadership, the trade unions are strong enough to resist these attacks. Lindsey oil refinery workers have twice won victories by determined struggles involving several thousand workers, given a serious leadership and solidarity across the ranks of the industry.
Unison has 1.3 million members. With the same approach we could force this weak government to retreat across the board. But that is exactly what the pro-Labour leadership is afraid of doing!
If genuine public sector unity, as was agreed at last year's TUC Conference was properly built and sustained the attacks on public sector pension schemes could be resisted. This would in turn send a message to other workers that they too can fight to defend their right to a decent retirement.
Given the will and the proper organisation, much could be achieved on an industrial level. But in order to ensure that the right to a dignified and enjoyable retirement is won and maintained for all, we need to recognise that the capitalist system - a system that seeks to extract as much from the poor as possible - is replaced with a socialist society that is run in the interests of the millions and not the millionaires.
An immediate step towards this would be for those trade unions, like Unison, who currently fund New Labour, to look to the example of the RMT and use their resources to support steps towards a new mass party that would genuinely represent working class people from the cradle to the grave.