Round One to Us

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The right wing media and the three main political parties constantly tell us that the trade union movement is an anachronism - that working class people are powerless to organise against neoliberalism. But this was not the message sent out by the government's retreat over public sector pensions last month.

Tony Blair, faced with the prospect of two waves of strikes by over 2 million workers, ordered ministers to promise union leaders a 'fresh start' and negotiations just days before changes to the local government pension scheme were due to come into effect. The CBI bosses' federation criticised the government for 'backing down in the face of political pressure'.

The huge numbers of union members voting for strike action - with majorities ranging from 67 to 87 percent in consultative ballots - sent an unmistakable signal that local and central government, civil service and education workers were united in their determination to protect their pension rights. New Labour's scaremongering about a looming 'pensions crisis' cut no ice with workers threatened with five more years of toil and increased contributions in order for most to receive a diminished pension.

However, we should have no illusions about the nature of the retreat. It was a tactical withdrawal to prevent a damaging confrontation in the run-up to the general election. This was the perfect opportunity for the unions to push their advantage home. Unfortunately the bulk of the trade union leadership, politically tied as they are to Labour, were desperate to accept the first offer that was put.

As a result the battle over pensions has been deferred rather than won outright. A New Labour government will no doubt regroup and attempt to impose its 'reforms', perhaps in a more piecemeal fashion but with the same goal of further exposing us to the vicissitudes of the market. They will prepare for another attack, and the trade unions must do the same. British working class history is littered with examples of discontent undermined by governments canny enough to postpone a fight until they were better prepared - from the 1926 General Strike to Michael Heseltine's phoney commission to defuse the pits crisis in 1992.

So it is vital that we keep pensions on the agenda. This means strengthening the links that were made in localities, branches and workplaces through building 18 February's day of action and the mooted strikes. Public sector workers also need to actively recruit to their unions by explaining what the plans mean and by proposing a strategy for fighting them. This should involve private sector workers in a battle that both protects occupational schemes and calls for a sharp increase in the state pension, which currently leaves 5 million pensioners in need of means tested benefits. Millions of people now consider it common sense that the £6 billion spent occupying Iraq would be better spent on pensions.

Such important political generalisations can only be hindered by a trade union leadership in hock to the discredited politics of 'partnership' with New Labour. It was the determination of union members to strike that postponed the government's attack. But when it returns for round two, the rank and file needs to have the confidence and the organisation to resist being demobilised.