Britain: The pensions’ battle continues

The need for concerted strike action against Con-Dem cuts in the public sector is more urgent than ever.

Central to that struggle is the ongoing battle to stop the government forcing workers to work longer, pay more and get less.

THE PENSIONS’ BATTLE has been the centrepiece of the generalised struggle against government-imposed cuts over the last year. This issue has generated the biggest phase of action so far, including strikes in 2011 in June and November. The cuts also resulted in the biggest specifically working-class demonstration for generations on 26 March last year.

If, after these Herculean efforts of working people, the trade union movement was now to evacuate the scene of battle without deploying its full strength, it would be an enormous setback. That could, in turn, bolster the government at a time when it is on the back foot. This would have serious consequences for the struggle against the panoply of cuts, more than 90% of which have yet to be introduced.

And yet this is precisely the danger which is posed by the defeatist approach of the right wing of the TUC, led by general secretary Brendan Barber, together with unions like Unison. Their acceptance of the ‘heads of agreement’ on pensions, despite promises of future action, broke the common front on this issue. Now, the leadership of the biggest teachers’ union, the NUT, is prevaricating. The union received an overwhelming majority in a consultative ballot for national strike action, to join up with unions like the PCS civil servants and UCU lecturers’ union on 28 March. But the nominally left leadership first of all rejected national strike action. Then, under pressure from rank-and-file teachers galvanised into opposition by some on the left, including Socialist Party members, agreed to regional action in London on that day.

Socialism Today, May 2012

This retreat, in turn, made it impossible for the PCS to call on its members to come out in a national strike on 28 March. The PCS’s own consultative ballot, which resulted in overwhelming support for national strike action, was specifically linked to other unions, such as the NUT, coming out on the same day. But, despite the confusion, the 28 March strike in London was very successful, with 10,000 teachers and supporters marching through London. Moreover, this particular action – limited to one day in one region – generated, perhaps for the first time, serious discussions in the schools on the importance of strike action on the pensions’ issue and the strategy and tactics which the union should pursue to successfully prosecute the struggle.

There was, therefore, an expectation that the Easter annual conference of the NUT would decide on decisive national action to defeat the government’s attacks on pensions. Notwithstanding the inaccurate headlines in the press, which gave the impression that the union had come out in favour of a serious strategy of national action, this was not the case. The national leadership once more dithered and, in effect, decided not to decide.

Its muddled message was that a combination of measures including regional strike action – not necessarily on the central issue of pensions but also on the government’s proposals to introduce regional pay – would be deployed but with national action not completely ruled out. It gives the impression that they have no confidence that teachers will respond to a fighting lead. Yet when they have been called upon to demonstrate their support, teachers have responded magnificently. This was shown by the tremendous, militant demonstration on 28 March in London.

The key issues

KEVIN COURTNEY, NUT deputy general secretary, said that teachers would be “very angry” when the first phase of the three-year increase in contributions kicked in this month, leading to an overall average contribution increase of 50% over three years. “For the first time since the 1930s, we think, teachers will see a reduction, a cash reduction, in their take-home pay, because the contributions go up”. The NUT has calculated that an inner-London teacher with ten years’ experience will lose an extra £49 a month from April, which is expected to rise to £123 a month by April 2014.

The central issues around the pensions dispute – the extension of the pension age, the raised level of contributions, and declining benefits – are beginning to be widely understood, discussed and rejected by teachers. Strikes are a necessary stage in the development of the consciousness of workers, including teachers who increasingly see themselves as working in factory-like conditions, under enormous stress, heavy workload, etc. Moreover, they have considerable power, as indicated by the howls of anguish from parents and employers whenever teachers go on strike! The strikes have allowed the acquisition of invaluable experience by teachers, which can begin to separate out and develop a new layer of teachers who will play a key role in changing and radicalising the unions.

The immediate and overwhelmingly important issue confronting all public-sector workers is that of pensions. The best way to defeat future proposals for regional pay is through national action now on pensions. But the NUT leadership – most of those on the left as well as the right – prefer to focus on future struggles in order to avoid the hard task of mobilising now, through a realistic but eminently reasonable programme for action on pensions. There is, however, still an opportunity of drawing teachers into national strike action at the NUT’s recall national executive committee meeting in April. A successful outcome of the pension struggle depends upon the NUT, together with the PCS and UCU leaderships, deciding now for national strike action, perhaps on 10 May. Already, health workers in the Unite general union have called a strike for that date following a resounding 94% rejection of the current proposals.

It is necessary also for the PCS and other unions to call such action. It was correct for the PCS not to proceed with national strike action on 28 March, because it did not have a full mandate for such action. The situation has now changed. The government is putting the boot in, refusing to negotiate with the unions on the retirement age, the rate of contributions, etc. Cabinet office minister, Francis Maude, has already made it clear that not only will the government press ahead with slashing further jobs in the public sector, which will severely impact on PCS members, but it is preparing to withdraw facility time and inflict other attacks on trade union rights and representatives in the offices and workplaces.

Call for national action

THEREFORE, A CALL for national strike action is entirely legitimate to further press the unions’ case against the pensions’ attacks but also to compel the government to come to the negotiating table. Without such action, Maude and the government will relentlessly use any victory on pensions to pursue their policy of weakening the PCS. National strike action is necessary in the first instance to once more attempt to fuse members together in this battle to resist the government.

The government believes that it has already won on this issue. But opposition is still there; the embers can still be fanned into flames and a roaring fire of resistance can be the result. After national action, in coordination with other unions, it may be necessary for carefully organised group action – helped and sustained by those who are not on strike – to force the government back to the negotiating table on the key issues. But to abandon national action now could fatally undermine the programme of group and sectional action.

Moreover, backing away from such action now would reinforce the government’s aim to play-off and divide public-sector workers from those in the private sector. This ploy was undermined when Unilever workers took action, including strike action, over seven months when their hitherto ‘paternalistic’ employer, like so many before, abolished the final salary scheme. This opened up the potential for linking the pension struggle to all workers. But now two of the unions involved, Unite and USDAW, have, it seems, retreated and accepted pensions based on ‘career average salaries’. This is a consequence of the retreat of some unions, like Unison, in the public-sector fight. If the public-sector union leaderships had remained firm, it would have encouraged private-sector workers to continue action.

A retreat in the public sector has led to a similar position in the private sector. Unite justifies this on the basis that no further changes will be made until 2018. As welcome as this is, it still represents a setback. It is symptomatic of the general offensive by the capitalists against the working class, not just on pensions but on a broad front of cuts. This has been accompanied by a preparedness of most of the union leaders to continually postpone struggle when a more intransigent fighting militant approach is required.

The perception that many workers still have is that the current situation is merely a passing phase – that pensions, job opportunities, terms and conditions can just be ‘trimmed’ now and, in the future, ‘better times’ will return. This is a complete myth. The reality is that capitalism offers a future of ‘eternal austerity’. Don’t just take our word for this. The Observer pointed out: “Worse is to come. Last week, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted that Britain could face decades of spending cuts and tax increases”. (15 April). The OECD should know, representing as it does the richest and most ruthless capitalist countries in the world.

Tories’ sliding support

BUT A DETERMINED campaign by the unions on pensions – which, we repeat, includes national strike action – could not be better timed, given the weakness of David Cameron’s government, its policies in tatters. So besieged has he become in the wake of George Osborne’s rich-man’s budget, the fiasco of ‘pastygate’(imposing VAT on hot pies), and Maude’s synthetic attempt to create an anti-union ‘Thatcher moment’ over a non-existent fuel strike, that Cameron has been forced to flee the country. From Indonesia and Thailand he pronounced on ‘the problems of Britain’. Yet while Cameron was abroad drumming up ‘business’ for Britain he also illustrated the warped priorities of his government, accompanied as he was by arms’ dealers, merchants of death eager to sell fiendish weapons of destruction to nations in the neo-colonial world while people there struggle for a piece of bread.

Consequently, support for the government has collapsed to its lowest since the 2010 general election. The Tories have dropped from 37% to 34%, with their Liberal Democrat ‘allies’ in government on 11%. Cameron is openly attacked as “Britain’s first dilettante prime minister since Herbert Asquith… Mouth open, but hands-off.” (Anthony King, Financial Times.) Thatcher herself, King points out, contrary to later impressions, proceeded cautiously in her first period in office. Cameron proceeded very quickly to attack the working class.

However, what King does not take into account is the much deeper crisis of capitalism today. Yet on managing the economy, where Cameron was previously ahead in polls, now 53% of people say they do not trust him to lead the country through the economic turbulence! The consequence of all this is that Labour is up to 40%. This has nothing to do with support for Ed Miliband. The sensational result in the Bradford West by-election illustrates this, as does the fact that Miliband’s personal ratings are on minus 41%!

Nevertheless, on the basis of these figures, if a general election were held now, even on the basis of the recent undemocratic manipulation of constituency boundaries, Labour would have an overall majority of 16. And a general election should be demanded, with the unions in the vanguard pressing for this. No other government – even the vicious class-based one of Thatcher – so threatened all the gains of the working class as does Cameron’s. It clearly lacks credibility and legitimacy. It has acted in a semi-dictatorial fashion in imposing policies for which it has no mandate, such as the privatisation of the NHS, the savaging of the public sector, and so-called free schools which, if they are carried through, will return education back to the 19th century.

This huge exercise in the privatisation of education being carried out by Michael Gove, the misnamed ‘education secretary’, means that a majority of secondary schools are now, or shortly will be, academies at a massive cost, ‘vanity projects’ at £337 million. So hasty and frantic is the push to force through this shameful privatisation – meaning the return of grammar schools, a rigid class-based form of education, in some areas – that many of the new ‘free schools’ have as yet no designated premises from which to operate!

Increased poverty, increased repression

THESE ATTACKS ARE taking place against a background of a further collapse in the economy. David Blanchflower, once of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England and now exiled in American academia, refers to “the killer GDP data”. He comments: “Embarrassingly for George Osborne, GDP growth data for three quarters of 2011 were revised down by the Office for National Statistics … This now means that the Great Recession is comparable in depth to the Great Depression but much longer lasting”. (Independent, 2 April)

And the price for this is the further suffering of the working class, particularly the unemployed, especially the black and Asian population. A higher proportion of black people in Britain are likely to be unemployed than in the United States, reports the British Sociological Association. Black male unemployment reached 29% in the early 1980s recession and is at 22% now. Black women are worse off than those in the US for employment. This indicates that the socially combustible material in the big cities that sparked the riots of last year is not only still there but has actually worsened. Hence the vicious and draconian sentences meted out to those who were convicted of August riot offences.

We do not condone criminality aimed at small-business people and working-class people in general. But when Tory magistrates mete out sentences to rioters often much more vicious than to those guilty of domestic violence, bank robbery or even some murders, then the intention is to send a clear political message: brutal repression will follow if you step out of line. The Guardian warns: “Future riots could be quelled by projectiles containing chemical irritants fired by police using new weapons that are now in the final stages of development”. (10 April) It further reported that “technology discussed included heat rays and sound weapons”. Also being developed is skunk oil, pellets containing foul smelling liquids which, when they hit demonstrators, would force them to go home and change their clothes. There is a clear intention by the ruling class to undermine further the right to demonstrate.

Overall, latest figures show more than 2.6 million unemployed people are chasing 450,000 vacancies across the country – a ratio of nearly six to one. James Ball in the Guardian commented: “the worst affected areas are spread all round the country: Clackmannanshire in Scotland has 35 jobseekers for every vacancy; the Isle of Wight has 21; Haringey, London, 19; and Inverclyde 18”. These figures apply not just to full-time jobs but part-time jobs as well. If it were just full-time jobs that were being chased it would mean that four million rather than 2.6 million would be chasing them! This truly horrendous unemployment figure, which now has a tendency to become permanent, criminally affecting young people, shows the daunting scale of problems which beset working-class people on the basis of capitalism.

It makes it even more urgent for the labour movement to resist tooth and nail the offensive of the government and the ruling class. Greece shows the lengths to which capitalism will go to enforce its policies. The population has been reduced to mass impoverishment, with no real prospect of a return to ‘prosperity’ in the foreseeable future. Greece is in the death grip not of recession but of depression. So are Spain and Portugal, and Ireland could follow them. Yet nobody can accuse the Greek working class of not resisting: 17 general strikes have taken place in the last four years. Imagine where the Greek workers would be today if they had not resisted! Backs to the wall, they are still fighting.

The ruling class of Europe is attempting to use the spectacle of impoverished Greece as a scarecrow in order to prevent resistance by the working class in their own countries; ‘see what happens when you engage in senseless strikes and demonstrations’. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you fight it is possible to defeat or at least limit the damage. Weakness invites aggression. This is the real lesson of Greece and of all workers’ struggles. It is the lesson of the pensions’ battle; resolute leadership combined with correct policies and programme can yet inflict defeat on the government and hasten its downfall.

Opportunities for the left

A POLITICAL ALTERNATIVE, however, is also vital. We have had a dramatic demonstration of the seismic shift which is underway in British politics in the Bradford West by-election, with George Galloway’s spectacular victory. The main parties – Tories, Lib Dems and New Labour – are increasingly seen, in the words of Galloway, as “three cheeks of the same backside”. When a real alternative is presented, increasing layers of workers and youth will opt for this.

This is revealed not just by Galloway’s victory but also by the massive response which the Left Front candidate in the French presidential elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has received. In opinion polls, his share of the vote has doubled to 15% – latest polls put him at 17% – since he started his campaign. The conditions are there already for the beginnings of a new mass party of the working class.

Galloway had a handful of supporters when he first went to Bradford West. His appeal was not just to oppressed Muslims but to working people in general. This represented a significant step forward compared to the earlier campaigns of Respect when Galloway’s campaign was narrowly based, primarily an ethnic appeal to Muslims rather than a class approach. In Bradford, he partially departed from his old script and the consequence was a huge working-class vote for him and his party.

Will he now boldly link up with others, such as the forces involved in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), in creating the basis of a real mass political working-class alternative and a new party? Or will he repeat the mistakes he made earlier in Tower Hamlets, when he did not go beyond a local appeal which, inevitably, involved linking up with people who were not prepared to take up a fighting, militant, socialist programme against the cuts, for instance? This is what Liverpool city council did in the 1980s, which George Galloway is on record as opposing.

Notwithstanding this, the Socialist Party and TUSC have proposed linking up with Galloway in order to provide an alternative. Former Liverpool 47 councillor, Tony Mulhearn, is standing for mayor of that city. Socialist Party councillor and former Labour MP, Dave Nellist, is defending a very important council seat in Coventry, and there are nearly 150 other candidates nationally, including in the ‘party list’ section of the elections in London. This opportunity to prepare a platform for a real breakthrough for the left in British politics cannot be missed. The pensions’ battle and the struggle against the cuts go on, as does the campaign to establish a force which will represent a new political mass alternative to the British working class.

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