Britain: Pensions battle continues

Public sector union left group organises open conference to keep up the fight

The open organising conference on Saturday 7 January, hosted by the Public and Comercial Services union (PCS) Left Unity, the left in the largest civil service union, could prove to be a very significant moment in the public sector pension struggle.

It was addressed by PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, left Labour MP John McDonnell, Padraig Mulholland vice-president of the Nipsa Northern Irish public sector alliance, Roger Bannister, from the national executive (NEC) of Unison – a key public sector union – speaking in a personal capacity, Mark Campbell, UCU lecturers union NEC, Zita Holbourne, Barac black anti-cuts activist, Kevin Donnelly from Unite’s United Left group, Kevin Courtney, National Union of Teachers (NUT) deputy general secretary and John McInally, PCS vice-president. There was also discussion from the floor.

The conference came the weekend before the PCS and NUT national executive meetings, Unison’s health and local government service group executive meetings, Unite’s local government national industrial sector committee and lastly, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) General Council. The conference has acted like a lever in galvanising the most prominent left forces in the movement to build pressure so that the unions reject the government’s offer enshrined in the ’heads of agreement’ and set the next strike date. Fundamentally all that is ’on offer’ is what the unions were fighting when they went on strike on 30 November: pay more for your pension, work longer, get less.

Speakers platform at the PCS Left Unity conference

The timing of the event was crucial but the lack of time and money after the festive period makes the turnout, of up to 550 over the day, with at least 470 registering, even more impressive. The make-up of the audience lends a huge amount of credibility to both the conference and the temporary coordinating committee that has been established. All the main left organisations across the union movement were present. Behind these groups lie the hopes, aspirations and anger at the thought of the momentum built up by the November 30 (N30) public sector general strike being wasted by leaders such as Unison general secretary Dave Prentis and TUC leader Brendan Barber.

The conference also reflected the authority of PCS Left Unity for activists in PCS and beyond. Socialist Party (CWI in England & Wales) members have played a crucial role over decades in establishing and developing this position, which now has significance far wider than PCS.

It was unfortunate that the SWP-inspired ’Unite the Resistance’ have organised a duplicate event a week later in the same venue. Many of those attending on Saturday expressed their frustration at this step. It also exposes a lack of understanding about what the PCS Left Unity meeting represents for the pension struggle and the left in the unions in general. In contrast, the National Shop Stewards Network not only didn’t consider organising such a rival event but put its full resources behind building for the 7 January conference.

PCS Left Unity meeting

Even before Saturday it is clear that the campaign had helped to create a momentum by stiffening up the resistance and giving confidence to the best activists in the various unions. Before Christmas, the PCS had stood virtually alone in outright rejection of the deal but by the weekend the NUT, National Association of School Masters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) and Unite’s health group had explicitly refused to sign. On Monday 9 January Unite in local government joined the ’rejectionists’, unions who have rejected the governments deal. However, it’s what happens later this week that will prove decisive.

The Unison and TUC leadership are desperate to consolidate the position that they ended last year on with the signing of the heads of agreement. They plan to kick the dispute into the long grass by setting up a protracted negotiation, in which it’s not even clear at which point members will get the chance to vote on. There are huge dangers in this because the government plans to bring in the pension changes for the vast majority of public sector workers at the end of March. But, even if the Unison Service Group Executives (SGEs) vote to endorse the sign-up, activists must fight for the right of the million Unison members who went on strike on N30 to decide whether the union stays in this struggle or not.

If Unison and the GMB sign up to the deal, it clearly poses the conduct of the pension dispute in a new light. There should be an immediate call in these unions for recall conferences at national and group/sector level. There should be calls for debates at workplace, town and city level, in front of the members to pressurise the leadership.

But there should also be an immediate meeting of those unions who have refused to sign up to raise the need for a sober discussion of tactics to be employed if a smaller number of unions remain. Despite some criticism from others on the left on Saturday, it was correct for Mark Serwotka to raise the need for a sober discussion on the best tactics to be employed if just one or two unions remained in the pensions fight. It is clear that the government aims to isolate and weaken the PCS. In that situation it would be crucial that the leadership of the PCS employs tactics that will keep its fighting force intact for future battles.

However, the unions that have already rejected the deal still number up to a million members, more than went on strike on 30 June (J30). This creates the possibility of a further coordinated strike being urgently called. As with J30, it could be used as a lever on the unions who have accepted the deal.

Everything is still to fight for. Saturday’s conference showed that despite the well-laid plans of the right-wing union leaders, they will have the fight of their lives from their own members if they want to follow those leaders who were responsible for the betrayals of the 1921 ’Black Friday’ and the 1926 General Strike.

Fighting the pensions battle: An interview with Mark Serwotka

Rob Williams, the Socialist Party’s industrial organiser, interviewed PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka in the run-up to the PCS Left Unity meeting on 7 January.

In the light of some trade union leaders pushing to sign the government’s heads of agreement on pensions, a lot of activists will be asking: "Can the battle still be won?"

The battle can still be won but we are at a pivotal moment. Before Christmas a number of the public sector union leaders indicated they wished to sign up to the heads of agreement. That does raise the potential of many people being withdrawn from the fight. The task is to ensure that doesn’t happen.

PCS’s message is quite simple. Millions went on strike because we didn’t want to work longer, pay more and get less. Everybody who went on strike is still faced with exactly that.

The best chance of winning is if we keep everybody together to fight the government and to call as soon as possible for further coordinated strike action.

In the private sector, Unilever workers are fighting for their pensions. There have been reports that Ford and BMW want to shut their schemes so clearly there’s potential to bring the private sector into the battle.

All along we’ve been arguing for the slogan "fair pensions for all", and that we should fight for decent pensions for public and private sector workers.

The developments in Unilever are very exciting. It makes it all the more incredible that after such a brilliant strike on 30 November, followed by the great strike in Unilever, that a number of union leaders seem to want to withdraw from the fight, even though we’ve got no concessions from the government.

What are the heads of agreement? Does it represent a breakthrough like some have claimed?

They represent a concession to the government on all the issues we’ve been fighting on. They enshrine an increase in the pension age for some people of eight years. They enshrine a move from RPI to CPI indexation which for many people will be a 20% cut in their pension. The heads of agreement, if accepted, represent a complete defeat.

We must do everything possible to ensure that as many unions as possible reject signing up to the heads of agreement and join us in striking to defend our pensions.

What do you say about the role that PCS has played over this long struggle?

I’m proud that we have a union whose leadership is prepared to say it as it is. We have a government who wants to make workers pay. They’re determined to squeeze down salary levels, cut jobs, attack welfare and attack pensions.

The four unions that struck in June: PCS, UCU, ATL and NUT, also played a pivotal role in transforming the situation. It’s been clear to me for a while that the strategy of government, and some within our movement, has been to try to isolate us and avoid taking action. The turnout on 30 June and the debate that it caused, and the confidence it gave activists in other unions, transformed everything.

30 November was truly inspiring. It makes it all the more unbelievable that people would withdraw from the fight when we have had such an incredible opening salvo.

In my opinion it’s because there’s a deep-seated fatalism that has infected the leadership of much of the labour movement.

That was best illustrated by the quote from one of the public sector union leaders that the battle was about "damage limitation". That simple sentence highlights the poverty of ambition of some and contrasts that with the willingness of members to fight.

Do you agree that the chancellor’s Autumn statement the day before N30 meant it was a strike not just for pensions?

Yes. In PCS our ballot was about pay, pensions and jobs. I’ve thought for a long while that pensions is an important issue but it critically gives the trade union movement the ability to have coordinated action.

If we can keep the momentum going we can force the government back. It’s not a strong government; they have no mandate for any of this and the more people that stand up to them the better our chances.

The PCS has been accused of walking away from the talks. What do you say about that?

That is the latest in a series of lies that the Tories have told parliament. Actually we have been thrown out of the talks with the government as punishment for not signing their heads of agreement. That reason alone should cause other unions to stop and think because it exposes what the government is doing.

How can we build the coalition against the government’s plans?

In PCS we’ve been really pleased to support everything from the Occupy movement, Youth Fight for Jobs, to the anti-racist campaigns. We genuinely believe that the best way of supporting any one group is to make sure you’re supporting everyone else. That remains our strategy.

The government’s attempts to isolate us have been assisted by very senior people in the trade union movement.

That includes openly attacking me at the negotiations with government minsters. We must gain the maximum support at executive and activist level to reject the heads of agreement. If that’s not successful we want unions to put it to their members.

The best possible outcome would be for the unions to reject the heads of agreement and call another coordinated strike. That would be what the government is least expecting. If we can’t get that then we do have to consider the situation in each union.

What do you feel about what happened in 2011 and beyond to 2012?

There’s an alternative to austerity and cuts. But no mainstream political party is prepared to put that argument and it’s fallen to the unions to do so.

Unaccountable financial institutions are essentially picking governments and prime ministers and determining social policy. It all stems back to the fact that all the mainstream parties accept the way that the capitalist system works. They accept that in a crisis like this you have to have austerity.

But it falls to us to say that there’s a different way of running society. In the short term we should say that people should be making decisions not bankers and markets.

2011 was the year that people all over the world decided that they’re not going to take what’s coming our way and they were prepared to fight against it. Look at Greece and the 15 general strikes they’ve had. It really goes to show that people are prepared to resist. But what assists that greatly is if there’s clear leadership and leaders that stand with the people that are resisting.

2012 has massive potential. But what happens in the first few weeks could really shape what will happen over the next few months.

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