by colin foster
28 March saw the biggest strike in Britain for decades. According to Unison and the other unions involved, over a million local government workers struck against the Government’s plans to cut their pensions.
That one day’s action amounted to twice as many striker-days as the average for a whole year over the period 1994-2003. Many more workers struck than voted for strike action in the unions’ ballot, or even than voted at all. Union branches recruited dozens of new members in the run-up to the strike.
Given even a hesitant, eleventh-hour lead, workers responded.
This action opens up a chance to start reversing the processes of division, fragmentation, and reduction of trade-unionism to damage-limitation.
New strikes are planned on 25-27 April — one day each in various regions. Sadly, the unions called off what was going to be their first step in longer selective strikes in sectors with economic impact. Meat inspectors were due to strike from 3 April, cutting off meat supplies to supermarkets. But the unions called off the strike at the last minute on the grounds that it would help “informal talks” with the Government, brokered by the TUC, happen in a “positive atmosphere”.
What will actually make the “atmosphere” more “positive” for winning workers’ demands is more solid and determined action.
On 4 April the official Turner Commission on state pensions delivered its final report, and the Government gave its clearest indication yet that it will accept Turner’s proposal to raise the state pension age, by steps, from 65 to 68 or 69.
The local government unions could revive the whole labour movement by a declaration — in the same spirit as the action by France’s trade unions against the CPE, which affects only future workers getting their first jobs — that they will fight not just to keep special conditions for a special group of workers, but to win the right to a life after work for all workers — the right for all to retire at 60, on a decent pension. The West Midlands region of Unison has submitted a motion to Unison’s local government conference, due in June, opposing any “two-tier” deal which sells out future workers.
Unfortunately, as of present, their demand is only to protect the Rule of 85 — allowing retirement at 60 on a full pension for those with 25 years’ service — for existing workers. They are implicitly conceding that it should be scrapped for future workers.
Joint union committees for the pensions battle would increase inter-union solidarity in workplaces, allow new activists to be drawn in, give workers more democratic control over the dispute, and establish a framework for alliances with people from pensioners’ campaigns and other public sector unions like the teachers’. So far, the joint union committees set up have been mainly affairs of top officials at regional level. Some moves have been made to set them up more locally. The build-up to 25 April can be used to develop those further.
There is talk of a new one-day strike on 3 May, and union activists are demanding that the TUC call a big, central demonstration on that day.
Unison Labour Link has stated that its announcement that it is withdrawing support from Labour, for the interim, applies only to the local government elections on 4 May. It “will still be supporting Labour’s campaign nationally”. So Unison won’t support Labour council candidates who back the unions’ campaign, but will support Blair-Brown?
This passive gesture is unlikely to be effective. Instead, unions should challenge every Labour and socialist council candidate to come out openly in support of the unions’ demand, and give active support to those who do stand for basic trade-union demands. And Unison should be demanding that its sponsored MPs use Parliament to obstruct and protest against the “Regulations”, imposing the pension cuts from 1 October, which John Prescott “laid before Parliament” on 30 March.