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Confusion over pensions at NATFHE executive
NATFHE, THE college lecturers' union, voted at its December national executive to reject the public-sector pensions framework agreement, which has been agreed by other unions including NUT, UNISON and PCS.
At present, it is hard to assess what impact this will have, if any, on the negotiations in the education pension scheme. It will have no effect on the negotiations taking place in health or civil service.
However, the NATFHE decision taken by 24 votes to 16 to reject the deal has been taken up by a small but vocal layer of activists in some unions who are using it to claim that the PCS and NUT should withdraw from the framework agreement and further, that they should never have signed up to the deal in the first place.
The call for the NUT leadership to withdraw is likely to fall on stony ground. Indeed, NATFHE general secretary Paul Mackney who opposed the rejection of the deal, pointedly said that he had already consulted Steve Sinnott general secretary of the NUT if he would do this and was told to go away, in two words.
Mackney, like other Lefts at the meeting, no doubt felt that the opposition against the framework agreement was a reckless gesture, with no real recognition of what sort of consequences it would have or the serious struggle the union would have to conduct to carry it out.
And, PCS leaders, while prepared to fight in both their own members' interests and the interests of the wider working class, have recognised that at this stage in the pensions struggle, they have to defend what they have achieved and fight for the best deal for new entrants.
At the same time, PCS leaders are ready to authorise further action should it be necessary, should the sector negotiations break down or if the government launches a further generalised attack on the public-sector framework agreement - as Gordon Brown has hinted at.
Also, the PCS has said it will "continue to build campaigning links especially with local government unions and support their campaigning initiatives aimed at securing an acceptable deal in that sector."
The NATFHE decision was also mired in confusion, with four resolutions on the table of which three were passed.
One of the resolutions which was passed was seconded by Socialist Party member Andrew Price, who made it clear that it condemned "the government's proposed changes to the public-sector pension schemes that involve new starters and the weakness of the union's response".
Nevertheless, it had been passed at the NATFHE further education committee in the context that the union would accept the public-sector pensions framework agreement and work within it to get the best deal for new entrants.
However, this did not stop those who were to later vote for rejection of the framework agreement from supporting it. And, when the motion rejecting the framework agreement was moved, it did not stop supporters of it from trying to face both ways and claim that the successful defence of existing members' conditions was a "partial victory".
The movers of the motion seem oblivious to the contradiction in their statements that if it was a partial victory then why give it away and start from scratch. This is comparable to a general on a battlefield winning half a mile of territory and giving it back to the enemy because he felt he should have won a few more miles.
Also, the movers of the motion to reject the agreement did not suggest the obvious conclusion from the resolution that they should go back to NATFHE members and ballot them for industrial action to protect new members' conditions. This is probably because they realised that NATFHE members, like members in the other unions affected, would very likely accept the partial progress made so far in defending existing pensions and try and build on that in the sector-by-sector negotiations.
Instead, those who moved the resolution sought to get the NUT and PCS to reconsider their signing of the framework agreement. This was after some nasty personal attacks made by the movers of the motion at NATFHE's NEC on PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka.
He was mainly responsible for pushing other public-sector unions to agree a united stand that forced the government to retreat much further than it wanted on two occasions.
One immediate consequence of NATFHE's vote is that they will have no representative in the sector negotiations and will have no impact of possibly winning a better deal for new entrants than the government is envisaging at present. Instead, they will have to rely on the negotiating skills of NUT general secretary Steve Sinnott to advance NATFHE members' best interests.
As many NUT activists and members would warn them, they'd better not hold their breath in anticipation of winning much. The record of Sinnott and his NUT leadership group is not one covered in glory when it comes to conducting struggle for NUT members, let alone other workers in education.
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