The TUC-ConDem pensions talks are clearly going nowhere, unsurprisingly given the stance thus far taken by the most of the trade union leaders. The talks were a sham from the outset and the leaders have dithered and prevaricated while the government have refused to talk about anything other than how the 3% hike to spread over the pay grades! So come next April, if we do not fight, the majority of public sector workers will be paying anything from 3 to 6 per cent more. This will not fund their pension pots but pay down the deficit created by the banking bailout, ensuring the banks can continue to make a healthy level of profit for the capitalist class. It will also not improve the lot of private sector workers who have been swindled out of their pensions and punished for the investment decisions of their bosses. Following this the government intend to abolish final salary schemes altogether and move all staff to a career average scheme which signals further detriment.
The successful protest strike on 30 June of the PCS alongside teachers in the NUT and ATL union, also in dispute over pensions, has exerted pressure on the other public sector union leaders to follow suit. A number have now announced their intentions to ballot including the big three – Unison, GMB and Unite. Whether are prepared to lead the sort of action needed is a matter of debate. However, any action would be a step forward.
Trade Unionists and working class militants must seek the maximum level of coordination across their unions and across the movement in any action we take. A generalised movement of the working class both inside and outside the Trade Unions is the only thing that will defeat the ConDems in any of their reactionary plans. The PCS leadership has, quite rightly, placed a lot of importance in joint action, pressing the other less-willing bureaucracies and the TUC itself into backing it – in words only so far. It also played a role in pushing for the biggest Trade Union backed demonstration in decades on 26th March and for the movement to outline an alternative to cuts. However, it has appeared for some time that the PCS leadership is putting all its eggs in one basket, seemingly because they are not convinced that PCS can ‘win’ any of its demands, particularly when one looks at the demands set out by the union and the tactics for achieving them. This is a recipe for disillusionment and defeat.
The pensions issue has been the one that unity with other unions has been sought on the basis that joint action over this is most likely and that joint action is the only way to achieve a ‘win’. For the PCS leadership a win here would be protection of accrued rights i.e. preservation of the status quo. Much has been made of the sustainability of civil service pensions but then the final salary schemes that are such anathema to tabloid press were closed to new entrants in 2005 with the agreement of PCS!
PCS’ main argument, that tackling corporate tax avoidance and evasion by the very wealthy would address the deficit and fund decent public services is laudable and partially correct. However it is not a programme for fighting and defeating a vicious right wing government. While propaganda is essential there is nothing to suggest that PCS are planning the sort of action needed to preserve the status quo, on pensions or any other issue, let alone fight for an alternative. This is where it is important that as well as debunking the myths around public services, those that work in them and those that use them- something that PCS has been excellent on- that the union puts forward concrete examples of how public services could be run and funded as an alternative. We will be tackling this is future articles.
For many the jobs issue is the burning one. Younger members for example will tend to be in the NUVOS career average pension scheme, on lower rates of pay and may have large student debt. The spectre of youth unemployment casts a long shadow over them. In many towns and cities the civil and public services are the only source of employment beyond the even lower paid ‘service sector’ jobs. PCS must therefore respond in a serious way to the job cuts agenda. With massive cuts in councils across the land, some being fought at local level by local government unions at branch level, PCS could be coordinating action with them under the national dispute banner. This would put further pressure on those unions’ leadership to call further, national action. This is where selective, targeted action, funded at least partly by a levy could play a role, emboldening workers by bringing them out alongside one another to fight the cuts together with industrial action.
In the same way that disputes in the local councils need to be linked up nationally by the big three so do disputes in PCS. A submission in the PCS Efra section calling for national action over compulsory redundancies in the Sustainable Development Commission – in line with conference policy stemming from a leadership backed motion- was met with opprobrium by the senior national officers. The battle to save those jobs, the first real test of the jobs protocol in Non-Departmental Public Bodies, is lost. However a consultative ballot in the Efra section has yielded a Yes vote to Efra specific action in the event of cuts across its myriad bodies. There are redundancies imminent which should trigger a dispute. There are disputes elsewhere in the union still formally ‘on’ such as in the DWP contact centres. These now need to be linked up with use of imaginative tactics going beyond one-day protest walkouts. The national leadership must empower the sections, beyond fine words, to go ahead and launch the campaign of guerilla warfare that is needed, acting as a coordinating body to give guidance and back these up by calling regional, local and national strikes alongside other unions where possible.
PCS must launch a campaign for a jobs agreement that goes beyond the protocols which where they do not assist the employer in making cuts, the employer circumvents them. Alongside other unions this could be a fight for a jobs agreement across the public sector. The unions must use their power based on a principle that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’. The first demands – from all the unions- must be for a complete moratorium on all job cuts and outsourcing, a full staffing review and a move towards national pay and terms and conditions in order to facilitate movement around the civil and public services.
It now looks likely there will be a strike in November. With workers across the whole of the public sector walking out this will number millions. A strike of these proportions will shake the government and send an impulse throughout the working class. However a one day strike will not be enough. The leaders know this and we must ask what their plan is given that the process is not a linear one, endlessly building until ‘the final victory’. Of course most of those in the union tops are seeking an exit from battle before they even entered the war which is why the rank and file must fight for control of any dispute.
The issue of pay will tackled in another article.
A PCS Activist