Building a campaign of co-ordinated industrial action to oppose the government’s attacks on public sector pensions is proving a very slow and painful business indeed.
The TUC finally held a meeting on 28 January. Around 55 unions were invited based on an assumption that they were “actively considering action”.
The evidence of what happened at that meeting is not encouraging.
The truth is there is little to talk about with the government. All of the public sector pension schemes are in the early stages of a new set of arrangements which was designed to make them more affordable. The government’s latest plans are not based on an assumption that there is anything going wrong with those arrangements. They simply plan to pilfer public sector pensions to raise revenue and reduce the deficit as an alternative to taxing the rich.
Most unions, and all socialists, are for no increase in the pension age, no increase in contributions and no cut in our living standards in retirement. The idea that we can force the government to withdraw their plans in talks is risible.
What is needed at this time is the language of serious intent to fight. We should be saying that we have agreed plans for joint and co-ordinated industrial action over a specified period to have these proposals withdrawn. What we seem to have is a statement of indecision.
The politics of this sluggishness are complex. For Barber and many of the larger unions it’s about finding ways to curb the enthusiasm of others. For them the pressure for action is little more than a problem to manage.
In particular the big Labour affiliates probably don’t want any industrial action this side of the May elections. For the more left-wing unions it’s in part a problem of confidence. It’s undoubtedly true that one union acting alone is unlikely to defeat these proposals so a lot of effort is being put into coaxing the less willing. But this is dragging on.
There is little evidence in the NUT of “pressure from below”. But the confidence problem is circular. It is unlikely that members will be gung ho for action if they detect uncertainty and caution in their leaders
A lot of material has been sent into schools telling teachers what the government plans to do and urging them to “join the campaign”, but it is not so clear how they can do this.
The most common action proposed is to “email your MP”. It’s not a worthless thing to do, and more than 15,000 NUT members have done just that since November, but not enough to be described as “joining a campaign”.
The NUT website includes a list of around 40 pensions roadshow meetings all round the country in January, February and March; members are being surveyed on their willingness to take action.
But there are also members already on strike against job cuts, for example at Rawmarsh School in Rotherham. The East London division is balloting members in all schools to oppose cuts in central services at Tower Hamlets Council.
If we want to boost confidence and encourage the idea that action is possible, then these examples need to be publicised and celebrated throughout the union in material that goes into schools and to individual members.
Equally, members should mobilise for those meetings and invite their local branch officers into school to talk about the pensions campaign.
An all-London meeting will take place at 6pm on Thursday 17 February at NUT HQ, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, WC1H 9BD.