Socialist Worker

Hit the Tories when they're weak - strikes, not talks, can save pensions

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2261

Over 10,000 people—a record number—joined the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival last weekend. Workers from Southampton council, on strike against their Tory council’s forced pay cuts, led the march. The event theme—“Fight the battle of Tolpuddle once more”—reso

Over 10,000 people—a record number—joined the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival last weekend. Workers from Southampton council, on strike against their Tory council’s forced pay cuts, led the march. The event theme—“Fight the battle of Tolpuddle once more”—reso


With the Tories on the rocks, it’s time to step up the fight against austerity.

That means following up the brilliant strike on 30 June with a strike by millions.

There is a debate going on across the working class movement about whether to call more strikes.

The TUC said this week that unions were considering participating in “scheme-specific” talks with the government over pensions for 12 weeks.

This means that different unions representing workers in different pension schemes will negotiate individually with the government.

The move has rightly angered activists who wanted mass strikes, not individual discussions about details.

Unity was the great achievement of 30 June—and should be built on.

The Tories want to snatch £2.8 billion from workers’ pensions—to pay a budget deficit that ordinary people didn’t cause. They want millions of people to pay more into their pensions, retire later and get less out of it.

And the Tories aren’t waiting for the talks before pushing the pension attacks through.

On Tuesday, chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander said that the government is starting discussions this month about workers increasing their public service pension contributions.

The “independent” Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) claimed last week that the cost of funding public sector pensions had soared to over £1 trillion.

But as the GMB union pointed out, this ignores continuing payments into the pot—so is wrong. And the reality is that the cost of public sector pensions is dropping (see below).

The 30 June strikes showed the potential for resistance that can stop the Tories’ assault. The strikes won widespread support.

Many union leaders have talked about further strikes involving more unions and millions of workers. Lots of people want to see this.

Those striking on 30 June stressed that the day was “just the start”, and that more would be needed to beat the Tories.

Several union national executives met last week. All were clear that talks with the government had so far achieved little.

In the teachers’ NUT union, the executive made plans for a mass lobby of parliament in the week beginning 17 October.

It hopes to have at least one teacher from every school there and to collect a levy to cover any loss of pay.

The NUT is moving towards another coordinated strike in early November. All three other unions that struck on 30 June—the PCS, UCU and ATL—are also ready for this.

Strategy

The headteachers’ NAHT union has said it will ballot for strikes as well, although the timing for this is unclear.

The PCS executive reaffirmed its commitment to the three demands—that workers shouldn’t pay more, shouldn’t work longer and shouldn’t get lower pensions.

Unison’s executive discussed the possibility of coordinated strikes but didn’t name any dates or reach an agreement on strategy.

This week Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said it was necessary to “plan for the worst” and to prepare “to move towards a ballot for industrial action at short notice”.

But simultaneously the union began a three-month talks process.

The Tories know there is potential for large-scale, popular resistance to their plans. That’s why they say they may withdraw some attacks and would welcome sectional talks—to sow confusion and division.

These talks might win concessions, but there’s more chance of beating the government if unions act together.

Some in the unions are cautious about what’s possible and underestimate workers’ strength.

They use fears about “public opinion” to argue against hard-hitting action.

Prentis has stressed that unions must be seen to take negotiations seriously. But the government plans to end its scheme-by-scheme talks in October.

Delaying starting a ballot until then could wreck any chance of Unison joining coordinated action later this year.

Some union leaders argue that workers “aren’t ready” for bigger strikes. Yet several national unions passed motions calling for general strikes at their conferences this year.

Other leaders have hinted that they would swallow some attacks, for example a shift from final salary pension schemes to career average ones.

And some say that some detrimental changes could be accepted if the government exempts the poorest workers.

This was the argument behind the “social contract” in the 1970s. It was disastrous then under a Labour government. Who can believe it will be better under a Tory one today?

If they get away with attacking some workers, they will come back for more later.

But the battle inside the unions is far from over.

Pressure from below, along with the government’s intransigence, makes united strikes possible.

Around 20 union branches have passed a motion calling on their unions to name the day for the next round of strikes.

The government is weak. The successful strikes on 30 June mean we are starting from a position of strength—while the government sinks into crisis.

Trade unionists must use this advantage to pile the pressure on union leaders to name the day for a coordinated strike that can be the beginning of the end for the Tories.


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Tue 19 Jul 2011, 17:25 BST
Issue No. 2261
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