Pension Battles

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The autumn is likely to see a renewal of strikes over the assault on public sector pensions. Charlie Kimber looks at the pressures on the big unions to join the fight.

The coalition's assault on the pensions of public sector workers is the most direct and concentrated aspect of its war to make ordinary people pay the cost of bailing out the bosses and the bankers. It is, of course, part of a much wider strategy, involving not just the £81 billion of public spending cuts but also a reshaping of the whole of British society in the interests of capital and profit. And the pensions attack goes alongside a vicious offensive against benefits, jobs and services everywhere.

In the spotlight

But the pensions battle is in the spotlight because it affects so many people so sharply and, most importantly, it can be won if the unions fight. If the government gets away with this assault it will be because the union leaders did not use our class's potential strength to hit back. However, a victory over public sector pensions would not just boost the fight for private sector pensions and a better state pension, but would lift every aspect of resistance. It would show we can defeat, and bring down, this rotten regime of David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg.

The numbers affected are vast. Public service pension schemes have around 7.3 million pensioners (retired people receiving a pension) and approximately 5.4 million active members (people in work who are building up a pension). Including dependants, 20 million people are involved.

And the scale of the looting is equally huge. The details have not been finalised, but broadly the government presently hopes to increase contributions from workers (a pay cut) by £2.8 billion a year, to cut £4 billion a year by moving from the RPI to the CPI measure of inflation for future pension increases, and eventually to save £1.7 billion a year by increasing the age at which workers receive their pension. That is a total of £8.5 billion a year, a massive transfer from workers to the government - in truth to the banks and corporations who have received so much from the state. This is a crude class battle over whether workers will give up their pensions (their deferred wages) to keep the rich in their opulence and power.

Crucial debate

There is now a crucial debate taking place throughout the working class movement. Will the unions come together to launch coordinated strikes involving millions, or will they retreat into seeking meagre concessions over their particular sectional battles?

The discussions are shaped by the huge success of the strikes on 30 June which involved three quarters of a million civil service, school, college and university workers in the PCS, UCU, NUT and ATL unions. Thousands of council workers in Southampton, Birmingham, Doncaster and Camden also struck over local issues. On the day of the strike the Financial Times noted, "A 48-hour Greek general strike over austerity measures, coupled with running battles between police and stone-throwing youths, will surprise few. But today's one-day stoppage by up to 750,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servants in Britain raises fears that trade union militancy is suddenly being reawakened in a nation where it has long been dormant.

"Yet is this not the country where Margaret Thatcher put unions to the sword in the 1980s? The dispute creates a serious test for David Cameron's coalition. The situation may - so far - be nothing like as difficult as in the 1970s heyday of militancy. Nonetheless, it threatens to become the biggest labour struggle for a generation, the outcome of which could define the state of industrial relations in the globe's fifth-biggest economy for years to come."

What will now follow? Unions are now all engaged in "scheme-specific talks" which will turn the general principles of slash and burn into the specifics of slash and burn. But unless there is some miraculous change of heart by the coalition, or a spineless collapse by union leaders, we will see the unions that stuck on 30 June strike together again for a day around 7 November. And this time the firefighters' FBU union and perhaps some others are - ballots willing - preparing to join them.

A million strong

A strike by a million or so in November would underline the way in which the organised working class has begun to play a leading role in the resistance to the Tories. But what's really needed is the involvement of the big three unions - Unison, Unite and the GMB, which have some three million public sector members between them. Such a strike could become a focus for vast numbers of trade unionists beyond the unions directly taking part - in both the public and private sectors. It would also act as a beacon for many others who are presently not in the unions, or who are unemployed or in dead-end jobs.

A union movement which offers only token resistance will never be of interest to most of the young people who rioted last month. Unions that can break the coalition, humble the rich and inflict defeat on the powerful can draw towards them every element that is bold, angry and looking for a real weapon against the ruling class.
Nobody need doubt that a strike by three or four million workers over pensions would win public support. In the run-up to the 30 June strikes the Tories and their media allies unleashed a barrage of lies about "gold plated" pensions and the selfishness of the workers who were fighting to maintain them. The issues involved seemed complex and unclear to many of those involved, let alone others.

Even then the strikes were popular. The Sun pointed to its poll which showed that 49 percent opposed the strikes and only 40 percent supported them. It gave less space to the finding in the same poll that 47 percent were against the public sector pension reforms and only 37 percent were for them. Another poll, for London Tonight ITV, showed a majority in favour of the strikes. And a staggering 77 percent backed the strikes in a Channel 4 poll.

Backing the strikes

Public opinion does not win key class battles. But the sense of broad backing from the wider working class and the community where you live is a big help in giving workers the confidence to take action. The numbers backing the strikes are even more remarkable given that no mainstream political figure supported them. Instead the Labour leadership, with Ed Miliband playing a particularly nauseating role, took pains to condemn the action.

The union leaders now face a double bind. This applies to all of them, but particularly Dave Prentis, Len McCluskey and Paul Kenny, leaders of the big three. On the one hand there is much evidence that they will negotiate, hope to achieve a few small improvements and then run away from confrontation. This, after all, has been the pattern of most such disputes for a long time. Such union leaders distrust their members' willingness to fight, act as if the government is strong, and tremble at the idea of an all-out contest with the other side.

And this is intensified because Labour's influence on these unions is strong. With local elections across most of Britain next May, there will be many in the party leadership who (wrongly) beg for strikes to be called off "so as not to alienate potential supporters". But because union leaders balance between employers and workers, they are open to pressure. And there is very real pressure on them.

Pressure from below

Firstly, there is the pressure from below. Many Unison members, for example, listened to Dave Prentis's speech at the union's conference in June about delivering the most sustained action "since the General Strike" of 1926 and believed that they too would be out on 30 June.

The disappointment was particularly sharp in places such as schools where fellow workers were on the picket lines. Many certainly expect to be striking soon. Unison's recent pension strategy factsheet has responses to a series of questions - presumably the ones their members are asking. The second one is, "Why don't we just go on strike now?"

Unite members heard Len McCluskey tell the PCS conference, "Unite declares its full solidarity with your action on 30 June and we will be urging all our members to do whatever they can on the day to express that solidarity and to stand united against the pension cut - as we build up to still broader action, if needs be, later in the year. And to be absolutely clear, we will be balloting our members, coordinating our actions with yours and with other unions." They expect those words to be turned into action.

Socialists now have to hurl themselves into increasing this pressure, passing motions that call on the union leaders to name the day for a united strike, pressing for local strikes to build the mood of resistance, using events such as the demonstration at the Tory conference on 2 October to strengthen the fightback, forming rank and file networks and holding meetings to bring activists together. In Unison some branches have begun moves to call an official conference to discuss the pensions strategy. The Unite the Resistance conference scheduled for 19 November, which will bring together elements of the union leaderships and the rank and file activists, is an important event.

And, as Sean Vernell writes (see opposite), this will have to be done in the wider context of a political battle in defence of services and the welfare state.

Pressure from above

There is also pressure on the union leaders from above. The coalition began over pensions by brazenly fighting all public sector workers together. Overweeningly confident, and unused to facing resistance, ministers believed they could just steamroller the other side.

Then came the student revolt and the demonstrations and strikes. Some of the more far-sighted ministers, or those who had memories, decided it would be best to divide the opposition. So they talked of concessions in local government and for the lower-paid in order to take the big unions out of the fight.

But then they keep snubbing their potential allies in the union bureaucracy who might smooth the path to a deal by unilaterally announcing what will happen, whatever the unions say.

Ministers did this in the middle of June and then again in July. Cue much anger: GMB union negotiator Brian Strutton said on one such occasion, "If they've made their minds up, that really is a showstopper. The key question here is, come on government - can we have confidence in these negotiations, do we have an open mind on these issues? Or is it a waste of all our time?" Unite's assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said the announcement was "tantamount to bombing the talks".

The reality is that even if the union leaders want a way out, the Tories might not give them one.

It is all to play for in the battle to win effective action against the pensions assaults - and then to build from that coordinated action to a general strike that can get Cameron out. Every activist - whether in the public sector unions or the private sector, whether worker or student, whether employed or a pensioner or unemployed - has to see themselves as a leader in pushing for the class revolt we need.