Firefighters give a lead on pensions

Submitted by Anon on 29 January, 2006 - 11:08

By colin foster

The new leadership of the Fire Brigades Union has launched a big campaign to mobilise firefighters to defend their pension rights. The FBU is organising a round of district mass meetings, in early February.

FBU branches will elect delegates to a special conference of the union on 16 February, where a call from the union’s Executive to ballot for strike action will be debated.

The Government wants to cut firefighters’ pension provision so that:

• Their normal retirement age will rise, from 2013, from 50 to 55.

• Provisions for early retirement from ill health will be worsened.

• All new recruits after April 2006 will join a completely new pension scheme, with much lower benefits.

Although the FBU has run some vigorous local disputes, and although FBU members have voted for left candidates whenever they have had a chance over the last couple of years, memories of the collapsed 2002-3 pay campaign weigh heavy. Many FBU members are hesitant about taking on the government in full-scale national confrontation. But there is plainly no choice in this case. FBU official Paul Woolstenholmes says the members’ mood is one of “grim determination”.

The FBU is a relatively small union, now left exposed to face almost the full weight of the Government’s drive to cut public sector pensions. In spring 2005, the public sector unions called off a more-or-less united fight on pensions in return for the government offering more talks after the general election (i.e., when the government was less vulnerable); last October, the civil service and teachers’ unions, and the health workers’ sector of Unison, accepted a deal with the government whereby existing workers will be able to retire at 60, but all new recruits have a normal pension age of 65.

Local government and the fire service were the main groups not included in that deal. Union leaders said the deal would help them because they would have a strong case for getting at least as much as the civil service, teachers, and health. Not so. In local government and the fire service, the government is confidently pressing for cuts in pension provision not just for future but also for current workers.

The fire service changes are due to go through from April this year, though the government is behind on its schedule for drafting the details and the FBU thinks the deadline may slip. The local government changes – abolishing the “rule of 85”, in other words, increasing the normal pension age — are to be operational from October 2006.

The local government unions, mainly Unison but also eight others, announced on 23 January that they too would be balloting for strikes to defend their pensions. Unfortunately, as yet, there is no sign of Unison’s leaders campaigning with the same vigour as the FBU’s.

They had a flurry of agitation last year, in late September and early October, denouncing the harshness of the government’s proposals and talking vaguely about strike action, but have done little to build up organisation and confidence since then.

The local government pension changes, to be implemented from 1 October 2006, are due to go before Parliament (as “regulations laid before the House”, not legislation) on 28 February. From that point on, to stop the changes will require forcing the Government to introduce a new measure “revoking” the regulations.

Unison’s plan is to start a ballot around 28 February. The ballot will take about three weeks to run, pointing to action in early April.

It looks dangerously as if Unison’s leaders want to give themselves maximum scope to cancel the ballot, or cancel action, if they get any sort of small concession from the government over the coming months.

It’s down to rank and file activists now, across the unions, to build a real fight on this issue, which will hugely affect the lives of millions of families for decades to come.

In Unison, activists are demanding a special local government conference of the union to plan strategy, and the creation of an elected dispute committee involving local representatives alongside the Service Group Executive. They are calling for the union to map out a serious strategy. A one-day strike is a useful show of strength, but it will not turn the Government round. Starting simultaneously with the one-day strike, the union should plan longer-term selective action, in areas which primarily hit revenue-raising rather than services, sustained by a levy on other members.

In Unison, too, the left should get organised for a systematic challenge in the Local Government Service Group Executive elections. Nominations have just opened for those elections, and the new SGE will take office from June. Too often in the past the left has let the right take Service Group Executive seats without a contest, saving its fire for the “more political” overall National Executive elections.

All the unions involved should organise a big national demonstration, and demand TUC support for it. The demonstration should not just be about local government and fire pensions, but also take up the demand for a big, non-means-tested in the basic state pension, the indexing of that pension to average earnings, and no increase in the state pension age.

The unions should not limit themselves to demanding that local government and the fire service get the same protection for existing workers as other sectors, i.e. to selling out future workers in those sectors too. The basic demand should be: a decent pension for all, at 60, financed by taxing the rich.

In fact, the divisive deal agreed for teachers, civil service, and health is inherently unstable. Once the principle of raising the pension age to 65 has been conceded for future workers, and for local government and the fire service, it is harder to defend it for the “protected” sectors.

Already, the Liberal Democrats have condemned the concession allowing current workers to retire at 60, and the Tories have said that a future Tory government would review it. Chancellor Gordon Brown has said that it should be looked at again in the context of the Turner report.

If local government and the fire service go down, then a future government – Tory, coalition, or Brown-Labour – is likely to wind back even the protection for some current workers. And it will be a lot harder to defend then than now.

• The Socialist Green Unity Coalition — an alliance including the AWL — has launched a campaign on pensions. See www.workersliberty.org/sguc.

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