“What a day! 30 November was an incredible success, one of the proudest moments of my career.”
So began Unison general secretary Dave Prentis’s column in this month’s Unison’s members’ magazine, InFocus.
He was right. N30 was the first mass strike in Britain for decades. But if N30 was a historic step forward, Monday 19 December was a day of betrayal.
On that day the leaderships of the three big unions, Unison, GMB and Unite (in local government) signed a “heads of agreement” with the government.
It conceded all the government’s main pension objectives. A number of smaller unions signed it too.
The Tories were quick to start gloating.
The very next day, cabinet office minister Francis Maude told a press conference that the total cost ceilings had not changed.
Provocatively, he stated that this showed “strike action does not work”.
Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, added that the provisional agreements will cut “tens of billions of pounds in decades to come” from pensions.
Alexander is right.
The government did not make a single concession to the three key planks of its pension plans—pension age, contribution increases and inflation indexing.
Some union leaders were only too quick to want to raise the white flag. Yet importantly, others were not. The PCS civil service workers’ union refused outright to sign the agreement.
For its principled stance the government threw the union out of the future talks. On this basis alone no union leader should have signed any deal.
Several education unions did not sign the agreement pending further negotiations. Unite refused to sign in the civil service and health. And, after the Tories’ triumphalism, it withdrew its support in local government.
Why did some union leaders back off and others want to continue the fight?
The trade union bureaucracy finds itself in a growing and deepening contradiction.
One side of this contradiction was explained well by Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, in an article in the Morning Star newspaper last month.
He wrote, “There is a deep-seated fatalism within parts of the leadership of the movement that says you can never win, that industrial action, even on the scale of November 30, will never beat the government.
“As one union has put it ‘damage limitation’ was the best that was ever possible.”
In other words a layer of union leaders don’t believe we can win, are scared of the Tories and don’t want to upset Ed Miliband.
But there is another side to this contradiction.
There is real anger at the union leaders who signed the agreement. The millions of workers who struck on N30 want to win.
In Unison, even branches that were once loyal to Dave Prentis are coming out against the deal.
N30 shattered the myth that mass strikes can’t happen in Britain. The anger it expressed means it won’t be easy for the GMB, Unison and Unite to sell the deal to their members or lay executives.
The fight is far from over.
Currently unions representing nearly a million workers have refused to sign up to the government’s deal. They have to name a further strike day now and keep the pressure on the bigger unions to rejoin the battle and call further joint strikes.
Activists in those unions trying to ram through the deal have to organise petitions, lobbies and pass motions calling for the action to be reinstated.
One lesson of the past few weeks is that rank and file activists can’t rely on union leaders. They have to organise grassroots opposition to the deal and to leaders who are running from the fight.
We have a historic chance to beat the government. We have to ensure the opportunity is not squandered.
What’s in the agreement?
A “Heads of agreement” is a contract that is not legally binding but that is intended as the basis for an agreement.
The heads of agreement that a number of unions signed is not a deal on pensions. It outlines parameters of a potential deal.
Signatories agreed to take a package including the key changes the government wants—working longer, paying more and receiving less—back to their unions.
The agreement includes a move from pensions calculated on workers’ final salaries to pensions calculated using career average salaries.
It agrees a shift from linking pensions to the retail price index of inflation to the usually lower consumer price index.
Signing the agreement also meant ruling out strikes in the immediate future while negotiations on the details continue and union executives and members are consulted.