Pensions Dispute- Rank and File Must Take Control

November 30th was a major step forward for the British working class. Involving 29 unions from the largest municipal ones such as Unison, to small professional bodies such as the Society of Podiatrists, it united over 2 million in a strike which saw many taking action for the first in years and many for the first time in their lives. It was the biggest strike involving women workers ever.  Thousands marched and rallied in towns and cities across Britain. Disruption was significant despite Cameron’s claims of ‘a damp squib’. For example, the fact that ‘chaos’ did not materialise at airports and border controls was because thousands had rebooked flights, showing a clearly significant impact from the strike.

Most activists know that it would be difficult with the technicalities of the 4 pension schemes in Health, Local Government, Civil Service and Teaching and the government likely to employ the divide and rule tactic. Nobody believed that one day would be enough to force a victory, let alone even major concessions, but the speed with which some elements moved to find an exit from the dispute before it had even started was almost breathtaking. Concessions tabled by the government, amounting to an agreement that they would further tinker with the figures – indeed they have boasted that no ‘new money’ has been made available- were snatched at by the leaders of Unison and GMB. The so-called ‘Heads of Agreement’ accepted by the largest unions in Local Government and Health is to pave the way for a long, drawn out process of sectoral talks in order that the ConDems can pursue their fiscal objectives free from the threat of coordinated public sector strikes, allowing them to paint the PCS and other unions that continue to argue against the pension cuts as ‘beyond the pale’, ‘unreasonable’ etc.

Whichever way you look at it the ‘concessions’ will see those that took action pay more, work longer- rising from 60 to 68 in some cases!-and get less at the end in retirement. These are the principles on which the unions launched the action, so what has changed -after one day of action?! This will be the question on the lips of those who took action and were expecting more in defence of their pensions especially when pay packets are further reduced from April 2012. With prices rising, benefits cuts and family members losing their jobs, we cannot allow a surrender before we’ve even really engaged!!

One day strikes are not enough. They must be part of a strategy to win and that means employing tactics to cause as much pain as possible for the employer. Prior to November 30th during the sabre-rattling from some of the leaders of the larger unions there was mention of rolling strikes and ‘smart’ strikes. While there is no industrial action blueprint guaranteeing victory had these leaders been serious about winning, then a real fight- with a real chance of winning – could now be underway. The pensions struggle is far from over even though the invertebrates amongst our leaders are making it more difficult. The coming weeks and months will test the activist layer as they mobilise to put the ‘decision makers’ in their unions under pressure to prevent a sell-out. Those leaders who are refusing to sign up for the ConDems sham talks are correct to do so and we must support their efforts to launch action as soon as possible across as many of the unions as possible. However, it is the ordinary membership of the unions- those that withdraw their labour and lose pay during strikes- that are supposed to be the ultimate decision maker. It is time for the rank and file to take control!

Defeat on pensions will open up the way for further and deeper attacks. Unlike many of the other unions, PCS also has demands on job cuts and public services as part of its industrial action mandate. This must now go beyond the rhetoric. There needs to be a real fight on jobs as part of the struggle to stop the cuts and seek the proper resourcing of public services. The unions must pose concrete demands to unite around in all workplaces- be it the council depot, the office or the school- and action to win those demands.

George Zee

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