Britain: The ongoing public-sector pensions struggle

The 30 June strikes were a turning point in the struggle against this government, giving a huge boost of confidence.

BRITAIN IS not immune to the increased tempo of developments that have broken out this year internationally. Events seem to spin into each other, without the relative ‘normal’ quiet of the summer months. Almost without precedent, outside of wars, MPs were delayed in parliament because of Murdochgate and called back early because of the riots. The Con-Dem coalition will be hoping that in the tumult the memory of the 30 June strike of up to 750,000 workers against its attacks on public-sector pensions will recede. They are likely to be mistaken in this hope.

The 30 June strikes were a turning point in the struggle against this government, giving a huge boost of confidence. The decision to organise lunchtime rallies and demonstrations was a big success, with thousands of workers marching through city centres around the country. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) raised this idea in our leaflet on the giant TUC demonstration on 26 March for the very reason that it could join together those taking action in the PCS civil servants union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and University and College Union (UCU) with those who have not yet balloted. The mobilisations were also a visible confirmation of the success of the strikes and helped to nip in the bud the usual attempt by the Tories and the right-wing media to denigrate the turnout.

The Socialist Party and the NSSN have argued consistently that co-ordinated strike action involving all public-sector unions is necessary to defeat the government’s attacks on public-sector pensions. We support the strategy of PCS in looking to build on the success of 30 June and involve more unions in future strike action. The likely time for the next national strike is early November and the signs are that the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) among others could be involved. However, the big three unions, Unison, Unite and GMB, are still not committed to this, arguing that they will only act should the attacks on pensions be implemented. In fact, Unison’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, along with TUC leader, Brendan Barber, were the main driving force in the talks with the government to give them every encouragement that a positive outcome is possible.

In reality, their strategy is to prolong negotiations to try and dissipate the mood of members. However, in the national talks, despite attempts by the right-wing union leaders and government minister Danny Alexander to prettify the outcome, the ConDem proposals are still on the table. Their intention still is to make public-sector workers pay more into their pensions, to get worse benefits, and wait longer for them. It has been estimated that the net effect will be to take a day’s wages a month out of their pockets at a time of pay freezes.

Following the national talks, there will now be separate negotiations for each pension scheme. But these still need to be co-ordinated and reported back to the whole trade union side to ensure unity is maintained. Moreover, this does not mean that strike action has to be put off until negotiations have been ‘exhausted’, which is Prentis and Barber’s position. The huge pressure of Unison members has forced preparations for a ballot but this has to be serious rather than sabre rattling, merely hoping that the threat of action can force the government to cave in.

Prentis is also hoping that by separating the local government pension scheme (which is a funded scheme) from the talks, the prospect of members leaving that scheme because of higher contributions, with knock-on effects on the stock market, will force the government to do a deal. But, even if this happened, they would still look to inflict worse terms and later retirement on Unison members working in local councils. (In a funded pension scheme, pensions are paid from an investment fund built up from employers’ and employees’ contributions; in an unfunded scheme, pensions are paid from employees’ current contributions and government spending.)

Unison is also playing up the fact that Alexander is open to no increased contributions for lower-paid workers below £15,000 a year and only 1.5% for those on up to £21,000 per annum. But this approach is a serious threat to the unity required to defeat the attacks. The government is vulnerable now and, in any case, how can it be trusted? Workers in the private and public sector have become used to employers pushing for worse terms and conditions and then returning for more. With its position in local government and the health service, Unison clearly plays a pivotal role in the public sector. The issue is how to put its leadership under pressure to join the struggle.

Left Unison members, with Socialist Party members playing a leading role, are organising to force a recall local government conference on the pensions issue. The NSSN has organised a lobby of the TUC in London on 11 September to increase the pressure on all remaining public-sector unions to ballot. This would only commit the TUC to carry out its policy from last year’s conference: to co-ordinate action!

Forcing Unison to ballot would only be the beginning. Prentis has a record of trying to cut across a unified approach. In 2005, for instance, he forced separate negotiations over the local government scheme. This actually meant that this section was the last to settle and, unlike the PCS, NUT and others, that these Unison members along with the GMB and the forerunners of Unite accepted worse terms for existing staff. In contrast, the Economist later complained, the concessions won by the PCS and others “added, by some calculations, about £1 billion a month to the government’s unfunded pension liabilities”. (10 February, 2007) The lesson must be hammered home. It is necessary to co-ordinate the strike action on a national scale. We raise the idea of a 24-hour public-sector general strike as the next stage in this battle. With the big unions on board, this would then be posed.

Before Unison’s conference in June, Prentis warned: “Be in no doubt that this union is on the road to industrial action in the autumn. This will not be a one-day action as we know that will not change anything”. This was accompanied in news reports with archive film reel of the 1926 general strike. Such was the publicity accorded to it that Unison members thought that they were joining the 30 June strike a week later! However, the contradiction of this union was shown during this time – the members were desperate for action while Prentis was looking to dupe them while he spent the week backtracking, as he has done many times in the past. This episode shows how the pressure will have to be maintained along with a clear programme of action, united with the other unions.

The Unison leadership has counterposed ‘selective’ to national strike action. This is different to the strategy of the PCS, whose strike mandate allows them to take group action to supplement the national action.

Marxists are not dogmatic about tactics and carefully weigh up when to take action of any kind. However, there are dangers with posing selective action almost as a principle. It creates the illusion that just one section of workers in a union or workplace can fight on everyone’s behalf, sometimes on strike pay which is paid by the rest of the membership. This approach risks prolonging disputes and dissipating the mood while the majority of members are passive onlookers. In the tremendous battle of the Southampton council workers against their Tory employers, within the participating unions, Unite and Unison, there is a serious debate whether the next stage of the battle should be a continuation of selective action or (as Socialist Party members believe) escalating co-ordinated strikes across the council workforce.

The Southampton struggle, along with many others that Unison are engaged in at the moment as councils look to change their members’ contracts, shows what the real mood is on the ground. Many other branches have had ballots denied them by full-time officials. But this time it will not be so easy for the Unison leadership to isolate its members from the moves to unite the struggle on pensions as it is not happening in a vacuum but at a time of widespread attacks. This is the potential that faces Unison activists, who have a crucial role to play in the coming weeks.

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September 2011