Pensions: time for a reckoning

Submitted by Matthew on 21 March, 2012 - 10:58

To turn round the public sector pensions campaign now will need not much less than a miracle.

Activists will work for that near-miracle: to make the London strike by teachers and lecturers on 28 March so strong that it bounces the National Union of Teachers (NUT), at its 6-10 April conference, into organising an escalating series of regional strikes, and forces the leaders of the PCS civil service union, at last, after three months of prevarication, into calling strikes.

Even if the London teachers’ and lecturers’ strike cannot rise above the scale of a token protest, still, a token protest is better than quiet compliance, and a spirited token protest is better than a flat, perfunctory one.

One young teacher in a relatively well-unionised London school, in a left-wing NUT area, told Solidarity: “Despite my disappointment with the [NUT’s decision to strike only in London] I feel there’s scarcely any point attempting debate here as it’s all so gung-ho in support of [the 28 March London NUT] strike action”.

Don’t get into arguments about perspectives or strategy, or criticisms of the leadership? Be positive? Build the next action, set everything else aside, and later there will be time for debate?

That attitude may seem militant and left-wing, but it has rotted the whole pensions campaign. It works to shield the union leaders from scrutiny, and to put the “gung-ho” activists in a position where they are disabled from responding to the questions of non-gung-ho union members with anything other than tinny “compulsory optimism”.

To turn the union leaders round now, and to get them to organise action when 70-plus per cent survey majorities for a national strike on 28 March could not get them to do it, we will need to have a sudden surge of militancy from the rank and file erupt after months of squandered momentum. If the London teachers and lecturers cannot find the extraordinary bounce for that, it cannot be surprising, and the blame lies not with the London workers, but with the union leaders.

It will disable activists for future battles if the union leaders are allowed to get through their conference times (NUT, Easter; PCS, May) by offering the same old jam-tomorrow promises, and by blaming shortcomings on the supposed reluctance of workers to mobilise or on the most right-wing union leaders (the TUC’s Brendan Barber, or Unison’s Dave Prentis).

Think back almost two years, to when the Cameron government took office. Everyone knew it meant big cuts. Before the election, George Osborne had said: “After three months in power we will be the most unpopular government since the war”.

In the midst of slump, industrial resistance would be difficult. The union leaders in the public sector had not used the almost-decade of rising public sector budgets and payrolls, up to 2008, to build organisation and strength. They had instead barely kept union membership rolls steady. They had allowed real organisation, as measured for example by the spread of active workplace reps, to decline. They had trained members to think of strikes as one-day protests “about” issues, and strike ballots as devices to strengthen union officials’ hands in negotiations more than as instructions from the members to the officials.

But now the union leaders said they would fight. After the Government outlined its plans in June-July 2010, the union leaders proposed a cunning scheme. The whole complicated myriad of attacks was hard to fight. Pensions were different.

With its plans for public-sector pensions, the Government was willy-nilly uniting public-sector workers. Millions of workers could be unitedly mobilised on a clear-cut, uniform issue, and a breach could be forced in the wall of Government attacks.

The civil service union PCS and the teachers’ union NUT, especially, took that line, and, with their reputation as left-wing unions, were able to set the tone. From late 2010 onwards, much of the attention of union activists was focused on getting industrial action on pensions.

Left-wing unions said it was best to wait until right-wing unions could be nudged into line for united action. PCS leaders told their activists that PCS “could not defeat the Government on its own”, and deduced that PCS could not even give a lead, or take its own action to force limited concessions on its members’ pensions.

In June 2010 the government outlined its broad pension plans; the same month it legislated the RPI/CPI shift in pension uprating that same month; in October 2010 it announced an average 3% increase in workers’ pension contributions (to start April 2012). September/ October 2010 saw a wave of strikes and occupations by French workers and students against pension cuts, but the British unions did not budge. It was not until 30 June 2011 that the main left-wing unions struck (along with the ATL), and not until 30 November 2011 that most unions struck.

The mobilisation was slow; but it happened. We wrote in Solidarity: “The... mass public sector strike on 30 November... demonstrate[d] the potential social power of the working class to a generation of workers who had not experienced it before. It gave a glimpse of the mass labour movement as a vital social force”.

Within three weeks union leaders would drop that glimpse into a black hole.

After 30 November, even the left union leaders announced no definite plans for further action, and organised no real debate among their activists and members. The line was: wait and see.

Workers waited. On 16 December the big unions in local government, Unison, Unite, and GMB announced they had agreed a formula with the employers to put to the Government (a variant of what local government employers had proposed back in September).

On 19 December, the Government announced “final” outlines for all the big public-sector schemes (health, education, local government).

The changes from the Government’s previous outline, on 2 November, were “sideways” — improvements on accrual rates balanced by worsening in the formulas used to calculate “career average”. The essence was unchanged: pay more, work longer, get less. Most unions said, in one tone or another, that they would pause and consult. Only PCS and the Northern Ireland public sector union NIPSA explicitly rejected the outline.

The media reported that the pensions dispute was more or less over. Over the Christmas/New Year holiday, activists had little chance to get a different message out.

In January, when union activists were able to meet, NUT and Unite shifted towards rejection of the December terms. PCS’s dominant faction, Left Unity, called a cross-union activist conference on 7 January; but blocked any vote on whether PCS should call further action. Not until late February, not until after two further months of lost momentum and confidence, did PCS, NUT, and UCU go for a strike on 28 March. Then they did it via “surveying” their members — “we know you voted for strikes on pensions, but do you really want another one?” — which further hurt momentum. They got 70%-plus majorities for strikes, and largely ignored them.

Some union activists say that the dispute was shaped by a lack of pressure from below on the union leaders. 30 June and 30 November rallies generally saw workers applauding bland speeches from the leaders rather than heckling them to demand more definiteness.

Workers faced the myriad of other attacks — cuts in jobs, forced conversion of schools to academies, etc. — which often hit them more sharply and quickly. They knew the union leaders were sluggish on those issues. They knew that the pension changes could not be fought by local action, so required national unions to take action. No wonder there was some mood of scepticism, of being pleased that the union leaders had at least organised something, of not expecting much more from them.

But when union members had a chance to discuss the issue, at union conferences, the union leaders felt they had to display a more militant tone. When union leaders called action, members responded well. The problem was not a general unwillingness by workers to fight.

It was a lack of democracy and honest dealing by the union leaders in their relations with members. In June 2011, Dave Prentis said he was offering “not a token skirmish, but a prolonged and sustained war”. The PCS kept on asking members to “support the union’s campaign”, boasting about how strong that support was, yet being vague about what the campaign would be.

Workers’ Liberty, from the start, advocated a simple strategy:

• a rapid, sustained, and self-controlling campaign — not just one-off strikes, but also rolling and selective strikes financed by strike levies, and action short of strikes, and demonstrations, rallies etc.

• meetings (with debates and votes) on strike days, rather than just rallies; rank-and-file strike committees to control the dispute

• a public, political “Fair Pensions for All/Tax the Rich” campaign, connecting the public-sector pensions issue with the simultaneous and linked threats to state pensions and private-sector pensions, and advocating levelling-up.

• not counterposing the pensions campaign to battles on other fronts, but building on, boosting, and generalising those battles. “Fight the cuts? Where? On the ground. When? Now”.

The problem was not that this strategy was debated, and defeated in favour of another strategy. On a good day, even non-left union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison and Paul Kenny of GMB would make speeches that sounded somewhat like what AWL was arguing.

Over two years of the campaign, there was never a proper debate. Nothing was ever pinned down.

The response to what AWL argued was not so much “that’s wrong”, as, again and again, “that’s right, but it would be premature and might cut chances of broader unity to decide details now. For now, build the next action, and we’ll see...”

Unions never publicly demanded any specific concessions (no contribution increases for workers below a certain wage level, higher than the Government offered? smaller pension penalties for early retirement? better algorithms for calculating “career averages”?)

At the same time, the unions, especially PCS, have made their headline demand that the Government “negotiate” on the pension changes: that inescapably implies that the unions’ aim is some softened version of the changes. (Or else what is there to negotiate about? The Government said early on that it would negotiate, and indeed has conceded, on details, but the main elements were non-negotiable). The union leaders never told their members what precise softening they were proposing in the long, long negotiations.

They equally never called for “levelling up”, although a major weakness on the union side is that, as a result of a rotten deal with the Blair government in 2005, every workforce is divided between workers on worse post-2005 schemes, with less to lose from the new changes, and older workers on pre-2005 schemes, many of them “bought off” by the Government’s agreement not to cut pensions for those within 10 years of retirement (except by way of the CPI/RPI change).

Everyone said that a series of one-day strikes could not force the Government to back down completely; but no union leader made definite proposals for more than one-day strikes, or opened a discussion on what could be won by such limited action as they were prepared to organise.

The result was that the strikes have been “about” pensions, rather than for particular demands. There was a sort of tacit agreement to pretend that the strikes were demanding a complete retreat by the Government, and to ignore the obvious fact that the action under discussion was inadequate for that. With the bigger unions now out of the pensions campaign, more or less whatever PCS, NUT, and UCU do, that tacit agreement has become surreal.

Fresh attacks by the Government are to be expected, now that Cameron and Osborne can see they got less resistance on pensions than they probably expected. The Government’s plan to shift to regional pay is only the first.

Morale has dipped after what’s happened over pensions; but that does not mean that future battles are lost in advance. We must expect moves to de-recognise unions in some workplaces and to cut union facility time, but union organisations are still intact.

Often in history workers have limply succumbed on what seemed the “main” issue, and the one most likely to rally a broad working-class mobilisation, and then an apparently secondary or off-centre issue has created a bigger stir.

But that depends on what the new activists roused up by 30 November, and the left, learn from the last two years.

There would have been some debate on strategy in the unions, only the organised left in the unions failed to demand it. At NUT conference at Easter 2011, for example, the only amendment proposing future strategy was manoeuvred off the floor, not by the central union leadership but by the left.

Unison United Left, Unite United Left, Left Unity in PCS, the Socialist Teachers’ Association — none has gone out to the broad membership of their unions, at any time over the last two years, to argue a distinct line from the union leadership (other than in Unison UL’s opposition to Prentis’s December acquiescence).

The main distinctive call from the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party has been for “a general strike”. If it is analysed, the SP’s and the SWP’s demand has really been that a different, more revolutionary-sounding, name be attached to what the unions were already planning, on 30 June or 30 November; or that we should pretend that a big enough 30 June or 30 November would soon elicit a bigger version (the SP has habitually suggested a two-day public sector strike) which will somehow “bring down the Tories”.

Such agitation has reinforced, rather than cutting against, the union leaders’ line: “No time for debate on ‘details’! Wait for, or build, the next big action, then we’ll see”.

The pensions campaign signals the debacle of the bulk of a whole ageing generation of the left in the unions — a generation of activists who entered trade unionism in the years before the miners’ strike of 1984-5, who have now “risen” to prominent full-time or facility-time positions, who remain left-wingers in general terms, but who have trained and habituated themselves in manipulative, bureaucratic, short-sighted trade unionism. The best activists from that generation now need to strike out and develop a new left with new young activists.

The way to unity and energy in the new struggles comes through division, rancour, and recrimination now over the pensions campaign.

Fight for a workers' government

The Labour Party’s record in the pensions dispute has been dreadful. Labour leader Ed Miliband explicitly opposed the 30 June strike, and remained silent on the 30 November strike.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said something which was reported by the media as supporting the 30 November strike, but fell far short of that.

Labour leaders’ criticism of the Government’s plans was never better than weaselly. They did not even defend the rotten, supposedly long-term, settlement to cut public-sector pension costs which Labour made in government after 2005.

The Labour left and some union leaders rightly criticised Labour leaders on these points.

The Labour leaders should have done more, not just supporting the unions’ industrial action but supplementing it with a political campaign:

• to defend and level up pensions across the board, public-sector, private-sector, and state;

• to expose inequality (recent research by the Financial Times has shown that for the first time ever people in the years soon after retirement are now on average better off than people in their 20s: alongside the millions with poverty pensions there are many very well-off older people);

• to demand taxes on the rich.

The Labour leaders were never going to do that, despite Ed Miliband’s talk about “predators”. The Labour left and union leaders should have criticised them on that, and conducted the political campaign themselves, as far as they could.

Too much of the agitation in the pensions campaign was limited to technical actuarial disputation about the long-term balance of the old schemes, rather than raising the class issues.

As an alternative to the Tory/ Lib-Dem coalition government, we need, not a government with more optimistic actuarial assumptions, but a government with a different class allegiance.

The Tories and Lib Dems, loyal as they are to the bankers and the bosses, are out to use the economic crisis to shift the balance of class forces. They aim to ensure that an eventual capitalist revival comes on the basis of reduced wages, harsher workplace regimes, lower social overheads, and thus bigger profits.

The labour movement needs to re-equip itself politically so that it can propose, as an alternative, a government as loyal to the working class as the Tories are to the capitalists. A government which deals with the crisis by taking aggressive measures against capital, like expropriation of the banks and high finance. A workers’ government!

Battles can win

In August 2011 Lambeth Council in south London agreed to a deal saving all the jobs in its library service, following the workers announcing they would strike.

By combining a high-profile public campaign with the threat of strike, the workers saved every job in the service, and reading groups, story times and enquiry services will continue.

Rawmarsh School, in Rotherham, in mid 2011, wanted to cut 25 jobs. The NUT immediately called a members’ meeting, gave the case for industrial action and balloted. Once they started strikes, they escalated, eventually to three days a week. All decisions on negotiation, strike dates, tactics for picket lines and communication with the wider labour movement were put to the NUT group at the school at regular meetings. Result: no compulsory redundancies.

The two examples show that sustained, democratically-controlled trade-union action which reaches out to win wider working-class support can win, even in difficult times.

No-one expects union leaders to be able to generate militancy where there is none, or to guarantee to win every dispute. What they can do is support, nourish, publicise, and generalise every spark of resistance as it emerges, and communicate with members honestly and democratically.

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