Reviving the pensions battle

Submitted by Anon on 3 May, 2005 - 11:34

Activists in the civil service union PCS and the public services union Unison are discussing a push to revive the unions' campaign on pensions at their conferences in June.

The union leaders cancelled strikes due on 23 March and 26 April on the basis of a Government promise to negotiate after the election.

But there is no reason to suppose that Blair and Brown have backed off from their plans to cut public sector pensions (or that the Tories or a Tory/Lib Dem coalition would go easy on the issue).

A government letter, dated 1 April, to everyone involved in "consultation" on the Local Government Pension Scheme, states that the basis for new negotiations is that "the Local Government Pension [must be] viable without the need for additional contributions from either the Government or the local authority employers".

Since it is not faked-up propaganda, but plain fact, that the proportion of pensioners to active workers will grow in the coming decades - short of a drastic enforced rise in retirement ages - the letter means, in plain language, that pensions will be cut.

The government is offering negotiations about exactly how pensions will be cut, not whether they will be cut. And, what's worse, the union leaders have at least tacitly accepted this basis for negotiations.

The government has not been so explicit about civil service, health service or teachers' pensions, but there is no reason to suppose that its approach there will be different from in local government.

Two scenarios are possible after 5 May. Maybe the Government, reckoning that straight after an election is the best time for doing unpopular things, will tear up its promises to negotiate and try to push through public sector pension cuts very quickly.

Or maybe it will let negotiations drag on - members of the civil service union PCS have been told that the negotiations will probably not even start before autumn - with a view to union members becoming thoroughly demobilised on the issue, so that the Government can then nudge the union leaders into accepting cuts, or push cuts through by force at some time convenient for them (around Christmas?).

The first necessity for public sector trade unionists is to ensure that any talks, or talks about talks, take place with the union membership vigilant, mobilised and ready to take action.

The teachers' unions, at their April conferences, passed general policy to take action if (and when) the Government imposes drastic pension cuts. That is not sufficient, because it leaves the initiative in the hands of the Government.

Activists are discussing a policy which would have the unions immediately demanding assurances from the Government on key issues - like no cut in the "normal retirement age" at which workers can retire on full pension - and immediately starting a campaign towards a ballot to authorise "discontinuous" industrial action for that demand.

Such a ballot mandate can then be used for relatively small, protest actions during the negotiations. Obviously, large-scale strikes will be difficult to organise before the Government makes a decisive move, and even if we could organise them earlier, doing so might mean the union campaign "peaking" too soon. But the ballot mandate would also provide the legal basis for large-scale strikes at decisive moments of the unions' choosing.

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