On 19 February an initial meeting took place between rail unions and employers to discuss the implications of the Railway Pensions Commission’s final report. Subsequently the unions have agreed to attend industry-wide discussions with employers under the auspices of the TUC with a view to continuing the dialogue.
This pan-industry group will have no executive power but would have an overview of the issues covering everyone. It will try to get agreement from the unions and employers on frameworks and processes it proposes to deal with the problem. In addition a number of sub-groups have also been set up to cover engineering, Network Rail, passenger and freight operations. These groups will consider the report’s recommendations in more detail as it affects their particular part of the industry.
So far so good. This issue is complicated and it will require plenty of discussion to resolve. Unfortunately there are three things that are likely to rock the boat.
Most immediately, the largest single employer with a section in the Railway Pension Scheme (RPS), Network Rail, has announced its intention to introduce, without discussion, a lower-benefit career-average pension scheme. It makes you wonder why they are even attending the talks at the TUC.
Secondly, there is the draft valuation of the scheme, which should be ready this month (not February as we reported last time). This valuation, it is widely believed, will necessitate increased contributions breaking the union-set limit of 10.56% in some sections.
And finally, as we stated previously, the report doesn’t meet any of the unions’ four aspirations but does prepare the ground for employer attacks by providing them with a rationale for action.
You can just see them now waving the report in front of our faces and saying that they are only following its recommendations. It is difficult to see how this round of talks won’t just be a prelude to industrial action.
And this is what we have to prepare for. It will be impossible for the unions to get agreements with all these employers that satisfies their memberships. On past experience it will also be difficult to maintain unity among the unions; but that is what we have got to do.
Network Rail’s attack and the valuation will test our resolve. If either of these two attacks or any others come to fruition then the union should call another aggregate ballot that will pit all railworkers against any attempt to increase contributions beyond 10.56%, reduce benefits or restrict eligibility for the final salary scheme.
It is likely that we will have to maintain this war footing for a long time. This needs to be communicated to the membership and not only when we are being balloted. The only reason we got the employers to the table was with the threat of industrial action; keeping them there and getting them to make concessions will require industrial action. This is a key point for the membership to understand. If we allow any employer’s attack to go unanswered this will be seen as a green light for the other companies to walk away from the TUC pension talks and begin their own attacks.
Nationally the unions intend to restart the campaign based on propaganda and meetings commencing once the draft RPS valuation figures are available this month. In addition we would like to see increased efforts made to improve inter-union communication (not just at head office level) as well as improved communication between the union membership and the leadership.
Inspired by a TUC idea of Pension Champions we would like the union to call for volunteers who would be Pension Defenders. These workers, supported by head office, would be in every workplace and every union, relaying feedback and promoting a fighting policy. It would also be a good idea if the unions set up a joint campaign website with an area where all railworkers could debate and discuss the issues.
We also need to think of ways of making any industrial action we take more effective. For example we could have different grades taking strike action on separate days. That way we could get more strike days for our money.
The bosses’ media are telling us that the days of ‘gold plated pensions’ are over. We don’t believe that. And neither did the petrochemical workers at Grangemouth. They fought to maintain their pension provision and so must we.
In 2006, Off The Rails called on the unions and rank-and-file rail workers to revive the pensions fight. Little campaigning has happened since, but our employers have been busy preparing their attacks. Two years later, the need to revive the fight is more urgent than ever.