Britain: Million-strong public sector strike defends pensions

Unions need to step up action to win

Over a million public-sector workers took strike action to defend their pensions in Britain on Tuesday 28 March.

The British capitalist papers generally give little coverage to workers’ struggles at home, and say even less about those in other countries. But, even they were forced to reflect what happened the day after the strike.

They had to report through gritted teeth that the strike had been effective – particularly in the major metropolitan areas of Britain. An additional factor about this action is that there were significant sections of workers – particularly in areas like transport – who were no longer working for local government employers but were still covered by the local government pension scheme because they were employed by local councils before they were privatised. The suspension of service like the Mersey Tunnel, ferry services, and even train services in Northern Ireland, proved particularly effective.

The press also didn’t like the fact that over one million days were lost in strike action in just this one strike day. Last year, there was only 250,000 strike days lost in Britain.

The press also tried to play off public-sector workers with private-sector workers. The BBC, for example, pointed out that public-sector workers counted for 20% of the workforce and had 36% of pension rights and took 70% of the days lost in strikes.

This attempted division between public and private sector is something the Socialist Party has warned about for some time. We argue that the trade unions and TUC should call a national demonstration on pensions, linking up public and private sector workers with pensioners and the population generally.

The Financial Times, on the day of the strike, called on the New Labour government to “stand firm”. It condemned previous deals the government had made on pensions with other groups of public-sector workers last year, as “shameful retreats“. It declared at the time that the government retreat, in the face of a united strike led by the civil servants’ union PCS (in which Socialist Party members play a key role) and many other unions, has the government paying “Dane geld” to buy industrial peace.

Yet, the Financial Times was forced to say the day after the recent action that the “local authority strike paralyses services”.

The Guardian reported that New Labour government ministers were, “Furious at the scale of the disruption and are alarmed at the prospect of further walkouts that could disrupt voting during next month’s crucial local elections”

And, the mass circulation Daily Mirror gave over part of its front page to the opinions of Dave Prentis, the leader of the biggest local authority union, UNISON, one of eleven unions on strike on 28 March.

What was the strike about?

Most public-sector workers in Britain are covered by pensions that allow them to retire at 60 years. The state pension is not payable to men until they are 65.

Millions of public-sector workers have traditionally viewed their work-related pensions as “deferred wages”.

However, we are not talking about huge sums of money. The average local government worker’s pension is no more than £3,800 a year, or less than £75 per week. For women workers it is no more than £31 per week. That is because women workers are often paid less and their careers are disrupted if they bring up children.

The contrast with MP’s pensions has not been lost on those workers taking action. British members of parliament can accumulate pension entitlements of up to £700 a week, after 20 years as an MP.

Last year, under the influence of ten Socialist Party members on the national executive committee of the PCS, as well as the Left, in general, across the PCS and other public sector unions, the government were forced to partially retreat from increasing the retirement age to 65 years for public-sector workers. They backed off in the face of massive votes for strike action by civil servants, teachers, health workers and council workers. Nearly four million workers were prepared to take strike action in March and October 2005.

Realising the balance of forces was against it, the government proposed a settlement. The resulting agreement meant that about three million public-sector workers (civil servants, teachers, health workers and others) kept their right to retire at 60.

Local council workers’ union leaders had decided to have separate negotiations – partially to avoid their struggle being ’dictated’ or influenced by the ’dreaded Trotskyists’ in the PCS.

The government, who faced tremendous pressure, last year, from the private-sector bosses and media – who called the New Labour administration “cowards” and other insults after “caving into the unions” – were determined not to offer the same deal for the council workers.

They told the unions that, from this April, local council workers would no longer have the right to draw their full pension at 60, not matter that council workers qualified for this after having paid into the pension for a minimum of 25 years. Having to wait until they were 65 year, in effect, meant the local council workers would lose up to £20,000 of their ‘deferred wages’ despite many of them paying into the scheme for decades.

It’s guaranteed that nothing angers workers more than seeing the bosses robbing them of their money.

One big irony in all this is – again not lost on many of the workers involved in the struggle – that many of the unions which were not affiliated to the Labour Party, (PCS, and teachers’ and lecturers’ unions), have, so far, been able to win a better deal keeping their present members’ pension rights intact. But, those unions that have donated millions of pounds to New Labour, (UNISON, TGWU, and others) have been left out in the cold. So much for ‘buying influence’ with the New Labour government!

UNISON has stopped paying money to the Labour Party for the duration of the strike and has also stopped helping New Labour in the campaign for the local council elections, which take place on 4 May. This is quite a significant development and reflects the pressure the union leaders feel over their discredited links with the Labour Party.

Socialist Party supports strike

The Socialist Party in England and Wales, together with its sister parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland, participated actively in the 28 March strikes.

In England and Wales, we produced 20,000 leaflets to give out on the picket lines, and these were adapted for use by the comrades in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well. We participated in the many rallies and demonstrations that took place in towns and cities across Britain, and in some areas we had Socialist Party speakers at the rallies.

We are still compiling the results of our intervention but it is clear that most of the branches of the Socialist Party were involved in visiting hundreds of picket lines and dozens of rallies.

Hundreds of copies of our paper – ‘The Socialist’ – were sold. In some areas, we also held public meetings in the name of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party.

Socialist Party members were collecting signatures from strikers calling for a new party and for the unions to break from New Labour. For example, in one city, Leicester, in England, Socialist Party members collected 36 signatures for the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party Declaration at the rally where a leading Socialist Party union activist spoke.

In Coventry, Councillor Dave Nellist, spoke from the Socialist Party. Dave got a very good response generally and very enthusiastic support when he called the unions to break from New Labour and to start building a new workers’ party.

Follow up Socialist Party public meetings are being organised and will be held over the next few days and weeks. We aim to bring fresh union activists into our party.

The strike action has also had an uplifting effect on all Socialist Party members. For many young members, in particular, it was their first experience of strike action on such a large scale.

The unions now plan to have selective strike action, regional strikes, and a further two-day national strike to coincide with the local elections, on 4 May. This may just be rhetoric by union leaders to force the government to negotiate. The Socialist Party calls for the union leaders to make a firm commitment to escalate industrial action over the next few weeks.

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