The TUC has called a national day of campaigning over changes to public sector pensions on 18 February. The changes vary across the public sector but all public sector workers will face a higher retirement age, and some will lose final salary schemes.
The civil service union PCS has announced that it “is discussing with key public sector unions representing local government workers, teachers, lecturers, and firefighters the possibility of a one-day public sector protest strike in March”. NATFHE is currently holding a ballot and Unison has organised a consultative ballot. It is likely to formally ballot for a one-day strike in March.
There is a real danger that all the unions will put off action, citing the general election as a reason not to rock the boat.
They may even, as Dave Prentis of Unison indicated in a recent speech, hope that a change of leadership at the top of the Labour Party will make a difference. But there is absolutely no chance that Gordon Brown will be any different to Tony Blair on this issue.
Meanwhile, the TUC says it wants an urgent meeting with the Government — but it said that before Christmas!
It is time for activists to organise for strike action. That is going to be the only kind of action that will make the Government think twice.
SCHOOLS: “Modernising” or cutting?
By Patrick Murphy, Leeds NUT
The Government is proposing to “modernise” the teachers’ pension scheme. This is linked to the general review of public sector pensions and is driven by the assumption that the current arrangements are not affordable in the long term because of demographic changes (we are living longer). The proposals for teachers have a lot in common with those for local government workers, health service staff and civil servants but also some differences.
• As from 2013 the normal retirement age for teachers will be 65, whereas now it is 60. Teachers will not be able to retire at 60 without losing a huge chunk of their annual pension for the rest of their lives.
• From 2010 there will be no early retirement for anyone below 55 except on grounds of ill-health (so staff made compulsorily redundant cannot get access to pensions).
• For existing teachers the new scheme is due to come into effect from 2013. In other words everyone currently below 50 will lose money as a result of these proposals. Pension benefits built up before 2013 will be based on the current scheme but after 2013 will be based on the new scheme. For example if a teacher wants to retire at 60 there will be no actuarial reduction on the benefits accrued before 2013 but there will be on all those years after that.
• Under this scheme existing teachers stand to lose up to 25% of their pension entitlements.
• For new entrants to the profession these changes take place from 2006, so that all of their service is calculated under the new scheme. It is the youngest, newest workers who have most to lose. But they aren’t yet teachers, aren’t yet in the union, and know nothing of this, so they cannot be called on to resist it!
• Ill-health retirement is to change to create a two-tier scheme. Currently teachers judged to be permanently unfit to teach can be given an enhanced pension with up to 6 and 2/3 added years. Under the new system those judged unfit to do any work will receive an enhanced pension but those judged unfit to teach will receive an unreduced pension with no enhancement.
Overall this is a very major attack on our conditions of service and is opposed by all the teacher unions. To force teachers, in particular, to stay in the classroom or face a much reduced standard of living in old age is not in the interests of schools, children or teachers.
What can be done?
• Write to MPs — as constituents and/or school groups. Most local NUT branches can provide some models or bulletins and info to be used.
• Lobby MPs: we have done this nationally with other unions but also need to set up some meetings with local MPs to which we can send delegations.
• Union action: some form of strike action is the minimum required to make people more aware of this and put pressure on the Government. The General Secretary of the civil servants union (PCS) Mark Serwotka has written to all public sector unions calling for a one-day strike in the spring of all public sector workers affected by this.
NATFHE has decided to ballot for action and Unison is holding an indicative ballot of its local government members. Our national leadership seems unconvinced that there is pressure from ordinary members in school on this issue and it is vital that we prove this impression wrong.
• We need to let them know quickly if people are angry about these proposals and prepared to oppose them.
• Petitions are being circulated to workplaces in many union branches. In my own branch we are getting tremendous returns and forwarding them to the national union demanding action. Where this is not being done we should be suggesting it to our local branches.
• Bolton NUT held an indicative ballot in last year to get an indication of the level of support for action. 80% voted yes and we should try to repeat this in other areas.
• Motions to the NEC from local general union meetings, executives and/or school groups.
In reality the most effective messages are those coming from schools groups because they provide evidence of a real groundswell for action.
HEALTH SERVICE: "Fighting all the way"? Yes, if we make them.
By Kate Ahrens, UNISON National executive (personal capacity)
The publication of the NHS pension scheme consultation document has been met with universal condemnation from all the health unions. Even the RCN has suggested that the proposals “could undermine nurses’ health and wellbeing, morale and recruitment/retention”. Unison has pledged to fight the proposals “all the way”, although they are typically rather vague about exactly how they are going to do that.
This unanimity is somewhat surprising when you consider that health unions have historically been very poor at noticing attacks on the terms and conditions of work in the NHS and that the proposals for the NHS scheme have far more “sweeteners” than are available in any other part of the public sector to help the bitter pill of increasing the Normal Pension Age to 65 go down.
However, the fundamental changes to the NHS pension scheme centre on the government decision to move to a Normal Pension Age of 65 for all public sector pension schemes, and away from the final salary structure of the existing scheme to a new Career Average based scheme.
These changes would inevitably mean that workers face working for longer, and then receiving smaller pensions than they would under a final salary scheme with retirement at 60.
Public sector pensions schemes have escaped, until now, the sort of emasculation that has taken place across the private sector. The government are seizing upon this as a justification for attacking what is really the only halfway decent element of public sector terms and conditions.
This is despite the fact that workers in the public sector are not sharing in the increased life expectancy that is the other government mantra to explain the need to force us all to work longer.
Between 1972 and 1999, life expectancy at 65 of a male caretaker increased by only 1.5 years, whilst the life expectancy at 65 of a female hospital cleaner did not improve at all. Paramedics, who have long campaigned for a reduction in the pension age to 55, already see a majority of their colleagues retiring through ill-health well before the age of 60. The new proposals will mean for many literally working until they drop.
Clearly it is important that there is as much high-profile activity taking place on 18 February as possible.
But the only real weapon that has a hope of beating back the proposals is a co-ordinated campaign of strike action across the whole of the public sector — and, beyond that, a concerted campaign of industrial action, covering local government, the civil service, the health service, the fire service and education system to really hammer home the unacceptability of these proposals.