Cuts fight: don't wait for the big bang!

Submitted by martin on 25 January, 2011 - 1:58

On Friday 28 January the TUC is holding a meeting of all its affiliated unions to discuss possibilities for co-ordinated industrial action against the cuts.

That's good. But don't hold your breath. The core of anti-cuts strategy for a while yet will be local organisation, and pressure on union leaders to encourage, support, publicise, and extend partial battles in which groups of workers feel confident to fight cuts.

Back in November, the Financial Times reported: "Leeds city council has been forced to re-examine the proposed closure of... crèches at leisure centres after fierce opposition...

"In Brighton, a state nursery threatened with closure was saved after staff and trade unions organised a campaign that garnered 1,600 supporters.

"Devon county council [has reversed] plans to cut free travel for primary schoolchildren...

"In Nottingham, school support staff have forced the council to delay plans to cut teaching assistants’ pay by up to 25 per cent".

Local battles can push back cuts, and a cascade of such battles could shatter the Government's whole strategy; but union leaders have done little to flag up or help this resistance.

On 30 December, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service union, told The Times that he hoped the January TUC meeting would plan more-or-less simultaneous national ballots for strike action (on public sector pensions) by a number of unions in late March, and more-or-less simultaneous strikes in late April.

The Government plans to increase workers' contributions by about 3% of pay (in effect, imposing a pay cut of that amount); index the pensions to the CPI inflation rate rather than RPI rate (which will cut your pension 16% by the end of 25 years' retirement); and link pensions to career-average rather than final pay.

Yet PCS has no campaign for industrial action against the big job cuts in the civil service. Unison and GMB have authorised strike ballots by some local government workers against redundancies, but Unison has blocked ballot requests from other groups in local government. The general stance of the unions in local government has been to accept cuts and negotiate for the best deal on voluntary redundancies and redeployment.

The front-runners for national industrial action are, oddly, the university and college lecturers' union UCU, and the generally very unmilitant teachers' union ATL.

The UCU is balloting all members between 2 February and 2 March over pay and conditions for 2010-11. It will also hold another ballot between 23 February and 11 March on action against changes to the Teachers' Pension Scheme, which covers teachers in further education and post-1992 universities as well as schools, and yet another on action against changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (covering teachers in pre-1992 universities).

The UCU is heading towards strike action in the week beginning 21 March.

On 21 January the ATL action committee voted to "make necessary preparations for a national ballot for strike action and action short of a strike, to be undertaken jointly with other unions", over pensions, and to "seek agreement with other teacher unions to ballot concurrently".

The two bigger teachers' unions, the NASUWT and the National Union of Teachers, have said nothing publicly about industrial action. We understand that the NUT is considering a ballot for strike action, but at a later date than the UCU's schedule (February) or Serwotka's projection (March).

PCS is less bold than ATL, saying in its latest bulletin to its activists: "if the government will not negotiate or reach an agreement, we must also prepare for industrial action as a last resort" (emphasis added).

Some groups of workers, in local government for example, are keen for a fight now. Many other workers would respond to a determined lead from the unions. The student revolt has stirred spirits. For all that, so far organisation and confidence within the working class is too patchy to put much pressure on the union leaders for national action, or even to indicate that broad national strike action would be sustained through to victory if the union leaders were to call it now.

Yet all the union leaders are slow, and their slowness is a factor in the patchiness. The government made its plans on pensions clear soon after the May election. It's as long ago as June 2010 that Unison general secretary Dave Prentis windily declared that the government "wouldn't know what hit it" if it went ahead with those plans.

The change from RPI-indexation of pensions to CPI-indexation was put through Parliament seven months ago, in the June 2010 Budget, and comes into effect at the start of April. The second "Hutton report" on pensions is due in March. The Government's plans will be more or less finalised in the 23 March Budget, though details of the changes in different pension schemes will remain to be worked out after that.

Let's go for a union "big bang" on pensions, and at a pace which signals a will to win rather than a hesitant going-through-the-motions! But above all, let's demand that the unions nurture, assist, and spread the local sparks of resistance flying up now.

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