By John Moloney, PCS National Executive
The whole trade union movement agrees that there is a pension crisis. Whether with the state pension (too low), private sector pensions (final salary schemes closing down) or public sector (extending the pension retirement age to 65) across the whole of society pension rights are under attack. These attacks, if successful, will mean more pensioners living in greater poverty for longer.
The main Civil Service union, PCS, called on the 2003 TUC Congress to link the various pension fights into one campaign, to have a mass demonstration on pensions and to have a pensions day of action.
In the way of the TUC, the first two elements were agreed but the third was changed into an agreement that the TUC General Council would as soon as possible discuss whether a day of action should be held.
Even on the national demo there has been some talk of having this in the second half of next year! This is way too long to wait. It should be held as early as practicable in the New Year. The day of action should happen but it should be a day of strike action across all the TUC affiliated unions. The pension crisis affects all workers therefore all workers should be involved in the fight. If this could be co-ordinated with the European unions so much the better.
If the TUC waits too long then the PCS must arrange its own day of strike action and its own demo.
This is not to say that the union will not work for the TUC events (when they happen)-we should throw our full weight behind them-just that we should pursue, in addition, our own timetabled events if the TUC are slow in coming to action.
The PCS will shortly be balloting its members on their response to the Government's proposal to change the pension age from 60 to 65. Whilst the union is confident of winning the vote, we have to ensure a very large turnout. Moreover, we must mention industrial action in the ballot material. Members have to be left in no doubt as to where we are going if the Government pursues its present pension policy.
Pay the pensioners!
Members of the National Pensioners Convention demonstrated on 6 October against the new Pension Credit system. Under the system, pensioners get a Guarantee Credit that ensures them £102.10 income per week, £155.80 for couples; as an incentive to save, they can get also get an extra Savings Credit of up to £14.79/£19.20.
The NPC complain that the procedures for claiming are offputting. The government itself has set a target of just 73% uptake by those eligible, which means one million badly off old people who ought to get the money will not get it!
The NPC also object to the means testing element of pension awards. Half of Britain's 11 million pensioners are subject to means testing, and many of them find it degrading.
Instead of the new system, the NPC wants restoration of pensions link to average earnings-not prices as now.
At its conference, New Labour announced a wizard new scheme to discourage people from retiring early: work until you are 70 and receive a lump sum of between £25-30,000. This works out roughly equivalent to the value of the pension you would have got between ages 65-70 if you had retired at the state retirement age of 65. Of course, the "bonus" is you've got your five years' earnings as well.
The downside is you stand a good chance of being a broken wreck when you do retire. This "bonus" is most likely to appeal to those who are already poor and have not had a chance to save towards their old age.
Blair suffered a defeat, however, when unions forced through policy that employers should be forced to contribute to the pensions of their employees: currently, employer contributions are voluntary and therefore largely non-existent! More and more companies that do have schemes, are reducing the benefits paid out or restricting access to existing employees.
The government is reviewing the pensions schemes of local government and NHS workers, teachers and Whitehall civil servants, and proposing they work a full five years longer before they can be eligible for full pensions. Proposals along these lines have been put to the firefighters, police and armed forces as well: firefighters currently can retire on full pension at 50, if they entered the service at 20. This is to be pushed out to retirement on full pension at 55 after 35 years of service.
This is a major attack on the working class. Sometimes it is dressed up as tackling age discrimination: "Why should people have to retire at 65 if they don't want to?" What is more likely to happen is that people will be forced out of work early but that, not being eligible for their full pension, they will face many more years in poverty, on means-tested benefits.