Where next for pensions fight?

Submitted by Matthew on 9 July, 2011 - 5:59

The strikes on 30 June by teachers and civil service workers against pension cuts were the labour movement’s opening salvo in a war against the government. If we are to win, the war will involve many more strike days and other creative forms of industrial and political action.

In primary and secondary education, the strike’s impact was enormous. Even though NASUWT, one of the bigger teaching unions, was not participating in the strikes, the big majority of schools were affected. Even on Daily Mail figures only 28% of schools were fully open. The overwhelming majorities in favour of strike action (92% in one teachers’ union, NUT, and 83% in another, ATL) give some indication of the level of feeling at least among the unions’ active layers.

In further and higher education, there was a poorer turnout for the strikes organised by the University and College Union (UCU). Given the timing of the strike, when many FE and HE terms have finished, this was almost inevitable. Even so, UCU stewards in places like the University of Central Lancashire reported being “pleasantly surprised” at the turnout and support for the strike. UCU members at South Bank University in London maintained pickets of all the campus’s main entrances.

Members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) turned out in higher numbers than might’ve been expected given the somewhat disappointing turnout and vote in their strike ballot. Workers’ Liberty member Charlie McDonald, a PCS rep in east London, said “I’ve never known support for a dispute like this in my 20 years as a union rep. Six people joined the union this week as they wanted to strike.”

The attendance at demonstrations and strike rallies across the country was solid on the whole. Some estimates put the march in the relatively small city of Exeter as high as 2,000. In Newcastle, some activists assessed the rally as “the biggest march we can remember in the city”. In Glasgow, even though only one union (PCS) was on strike (Scottish teachers have a different pension set-up), hundreds rallied in the city’s central George Square, and union activists maintained dozens-strong picket lines at workplaces like Northgate.

On the whole, the rallying of students and young people to the union demonstrations hoped for by some activists did not happen: but that was to be expected with universities, colleges, and schools either finished for the academic year or deep in exams.

In Southampton, Doncaster, north London, Birmingham and Crewe, strikes were bolstered by other workers in ongoing local disputes. In some places, such as Birmingham, unions not on strike such as the Communication Workers’ Union gave their members public backing in refusing to cross strikers’ picket lines.

Few places saw mass meetings or assemblies where strikers and their supporters could discuss the direction of the dispute, but in Nottingham, where a meeting was held, a motion calling for a continuation and escalation of action, and rank-and-file control of the dispute, was passed.

What should the unions do now?

Those with a valid ballot mandate should set a date now for another strike in the autumn, to keep up the pressure on the government, to focus the activists, and to stimulate activists in Unison, Unite, and GMB.

They should organise strike levies to prepare for longer strikes by strategic groups of workers in rolling and selective form. They should reconfigure their funds so as to enable them to keep operating even if hit by anti-union laws.They should encourage their members to organise joint union committees with other public sector unions everywhere.

They should organise large national meetings of union reps to discuss further one-day strikes in advance of sustained action, and the possibilities for rolling and selective strikes.

They should discuss broadening out the demands of further action to include defence of public services and jobs as well as pensions, and consciously see themselves as fighting for the whole working class on issues like the NHS and welfare. They should discuss how unions facing immediate and sector-specific attacks, like CWU (facing Royal Mail privatisation) and RMT (facing the McNulty reforms to the rail service), can be drawn in. They should campaign politically, against the anti-union laws and for a workers’ government.

A concerted working-class fightback against the government will also need a campaign to rebuild working-class organisation at every level. The labour movement needs a “New Unionism” for the 21st century, a movement to reach out to and organise the semi-casual, low-paid workplaces where many young workers now work. It also needs a “Minority Movement” for the 21st century, a national network of rank-and-file activists within and across unions that can pressure the union leaderships to act and organise independently of them when they won’t.

Local anti-cuts committees, which have some activist autonomy from labour movement officialdom and were therefore central to the fight against the first wave of local authority budget cuts, have often shrunk somewhat since 26 March and do not seem to have been significantly bolstered or revived in the run-up to the 30 June strikes. Those committees need to work hard to rebuild themselves as open, democratic forums – not as cartels of far-left cadres — by campaigning on the Health Service, benefit cuts, etc.; approaching local public-sector union branches and workplaces to help the activists there; and lobbying MPs to oppose the pension changes and (for Labour MPs) to distance from Ed Miliband and back the strikes.

London Mayor Boris Johnson reiterated his call for new anti-union laws, which would require a 50% turnout of the entire electorate, as well as a majority of those voting, to make a strike lawful.

He said that the government should take action “right away”. The Confederation of British Industry wants the law changed to require a “yes” to strike from 40% of the electorate (i.e., for example, an 80% yes vote if turnout is 50%). Vince Cable, speaking at the recent GMB congress, said that pressure on the government to introduce new anti-union laws would increase if strike levels went up.

Boris Johnson himself was backed by just 19% of the electorate when he won the election for mayor of London; David Cameron’s Tories won only 23% of the electorate in the May 2010 election.

Although most major unions are affiliated to the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws, none yet does the positive campaigning against existing anti-union laws that would provide a springboard for a campaign against proposed new ones. Unions need to stop seeing the anti-union laws as hoops they must jump through (or resignedly submit to, as too hard to jump), and more as obstacles to get round and, ultimately, smash.

Activists in more militant unions such as the RMT and PCS should push for their unions to call a trade-union activist conference to discuss a new campaign against the anti-union laws, and for a positive charter of union rights, or get rank and file networks to call it independently and seek backing and sponsorship for it union organisations.

Unions need to prepare to work around the law wherever possible. They should move their funds abroad so that they can continue operating in the event of sequestration, and give their members “off the record” support for unofficial action.

The government will make no big changes to its plans for public sector pensions from just one day of strike action. But it will have been shaken by the unexpectedly good turn-out on 30 June. It may budge a little.

Although the media remains almost uniformly anti-strike, the government’s vice-grip over the public narrative suffered blows such as Mark Serwotka’s roasting of Francis Maude on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

There are also pressures on the government from other quarters. If the government overdoes things, especially with the increases in contributions, then it may crash the Local government Pension Scheme (LGPS) and possibly others. Contributions will plummet. Required pension payments in, say, 40 years’ time will also plummet, but that is little consolation to Cameron and Osborne, since the sum needing to be paid out in pensions now remains the same. A measure aimed at improving the government’s budget balance would in fact worsen it.

Separate and detailed negotiations are underway to some specific public sector workers’ pension schemes, such as firefighters and lecturers in pre-1992 universities. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack told members at the union’s conference in May to “prepare for national strike action” over pensions. Firefighters already face the highest employee pensions contributions in the sector, and the government wants to hike their contributions from 11% to between 14 and 17%. FBU opinion polls indicate that up to 25% of firefighters would consider leaving the pensions scheme if the reforms went through, at a potential cost of £210 million to the taxpayer.

The UCU is balloting its members in the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the pension scheme from pre-1992 universities, for strikes. The ballot will close on 14 September.

UCU has already negotiated down the increase in employee contributions for existing members from 2% to 1.15% and frozen the proposed new entrants’ contributions at 6.35%. Although the union is balloting for action, it says it wants to “narrow the gap” rather than fight the two-tier system altogether. The fact that negotiations have won some concessions from government shows that it is possible to force movement.

The LGPS is different from the three other big public sector pension schemes — teachers (which includes FE and post-92 unis), civil service, and NHS — in that it is a fund (or conglomeration of funds) into which contributions are paid and out of which pensions are paid. For the three other schemes, contributions go into, and pensions come out of, current government revenue. There is no fund.

The large scale of the government’s pension cuts means, however, that any concessions likely anytime soon will leave workers still much worse off. The complexity of the Government’s plan (see tinyurl.com/pensionsbriefing) makes it easier for the Government to make a show of concessions without budging on essentials.

The element which concerns the government most immediately (i.e. helps its immediate budget problems) is also the element which concerns workers most immediately, namely, the increase in contributions. That increase could be moderated — the total gain to government revenue expected from it, £2.8 billion a year, is small-ish in relation to the total government budget — but is still likely to remain a large grab from workers’ wage-frozen budgets.Concessions sufficient to allow workers decent pensions with affordable contributions, at a reasonable age, are conceivable only with a sustained campaign of mass strike action based on a battle for a labour-movement political alternative.

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