24 union leaders, meeting at the TUC on 14 September, have set a new public sector workers' strike against pension cuts for 30 November.
By Patrick Murphy, National Union of Teachers (NUT) exec (pc)
In the first few days of autumn it was just possible to hear the creak of arthritic joints as one public sector trade union leader after another slowly got up of their knees, cleared their collective throats and finally announced that they would ask their members to take strike action to defend their pensions.
Four unions (NUT, ATL, PCS and UCU) took national strike action on 30 June against government proposals to make public service workers pay more, work for longer and then get a worse pension in retirement. The rest of the union movement stood aloof from 30 June and TUC leaders did what they could to prevent that action from taking place. Worse, Labour leader Ed Miliband denounced the strikes as premature and unnecessary.
In the build up to TUC Conference (12-14 September), however, public sector union leaders declared intentions to ballot for strike action over pension proposals, starting with the civil service unions, Prospect and the FDA. Unison and GMB announced that they will ballot their local government members for action in November. The FBU will ballot. The POA are not allowed to ballot but have said they will organise sympathetic action. The largest Scottish teachers’ union, EIS, confirmed it would be balloting for action and named 22 November as the likely date for their action. The largest union in the UK, Unite, will ballot members in particular bits of the civil service where they have members affected. The Executive of NASUWT, second biggest teachers union, decided they would ballot too though it wasn’t clear the focus of their action was on pensions.
If all of these unions carry out and win these prospective ballots and there is no movement from the government we will see the biggest national walk-out by workers since 1926. Sometime in November the government will face something close to a one-day general strike in the public sector. Only the health sector has so far not declared an intention to join in, and even here there are plans for a combination of strike and non-strike action from an alliance of unions and professional organisations.
Of course there are ballots to win and hurdles to cross from now on but the change in mood at the top of the trade union movement transforms dramatically the prospects for a serious fight against the government’s austerity agenda.
All of these unions will ballot for “discontinuous” action giving them a mandate for more than just one-day token action. The 30 June unions also have mandates for further action without the need for new ballots.
Any action will take place against the background of other local and national protests against cuts and in defence of services.
A revived student campaign of action against fees and cuts is likely. It will be the job of socialists and militants to build the whole movement and ensure that the possibilities are not wasted.
This move to joint action is not simply due to a revival of militancy. For sure the success of the “30 June unions” in winning ballot results and delivering members in support of strike action has boosted those in other unions who have been working for a collective industrial response to the attacks and put pressure on leaders who argued that we should wait until the talks were exhausted.
It is also the case that union-government discussions, continued over the summer, are getting nowhere. Despite the hopes of moderate union leaders, this government will offer not even marginal concessions. The local government unions tried to persuade ministers that the high level of job losses in that sector had already delivered the necessary savings in their pension scheme as employers would no longer have to pay contributions for thousands of sacked workers! The minister responsible for local government, Eric Pickles, gave short shrift to this supine argument and continued to insist that increased contributions were necessary.
But the talks have never been genuine negotiations from the start. It was this that convinced the usually ever-so-moderate ATL to join the NUT and take their first ever national strike action. However we should be aware that they are doing so mainly because they have been given no choice. It may take little movement from government for them to back off and claim success.
The best way to counteract that is work to win the ballots and deliver the action in all of these unions and then to bring tens of thousands of workers into activity. Passive, demoralised union leaders depend on an inactive, atomised membership. A major struggle which reaches down into thousands of workplaces in every community can renew and refresh the labour movement in ways which years of patient organising work would not.
Meanwhile the education unions have called a mass lobby of Parliament on 26 October — to submit a petition with around 25,000 signatures demanding the withdrawal of plans to worsen the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. Parliamentary lobbies have often been substitutes for industrial action and have rarely made any difference. It has not gone down well that this one is in the school half-term too. Nevertheless there is a strong case for building this lobby as strike action will soon follow. It also matters that school workers have activities to build this term and before the likely next strike.
It is vital that local union branches set up action or strike committees to organise for these actions, involve workplace reps in this campaign and build democratic control of this dispute to the rank and file membership. As the coalition of unions taking action grows it will become urgent to establish cross-union committees in each locality as organising centres to deliver maximum support for the action and put pressure on union leaders to plan the sort of programme of action necessary to win.
A good start would be to name a number of days of action, national and local, during November and December to demonstrate that this is a fight we plan to win.