AROUND 10,000 people marched in London last Saturday against the great pensions robbery. The demonstration was organised by the TUC.
Firms are closing decent pension schemes and the government wants millions of public sector workers to work for five years more before they claim their full pension. Some companies have even left their workers with nothing after decades of contributing to pension funds.
There was real anger on the march and particularly big turnouts from teachers' unions, where the threat to have to work for longer could soon be implemented. There were many delegations from firms where the bosses have closed pension schemes, leaving workers and pensioners in the lurch.
Workers at Triplex in Peterborough have lost out three times as their pension scheme has been handed from one company to another during takeovers. David Bewick, a member of the TGWU union, said, "It seems the government is not prepared to take action to curb companies' ability to lie and cover up what's happening to pensions.
"Then they tell us to save! You'd have to be a mug to do that when you see what happens to your cash, money that's come from your wages."
Heidi Irwin, an Amicus union member at Felix Schoeller, told Socialist Worker, "This company, which makes photographic and digital imaging paper, bought a UK firm called Glory Mill at Wooburn Green in Buckinghamshire. Then in February 2002 Felix Schoeller, put the last part of Glory Mill into liquidation. This caused the pension scheme to be put into wind-up. Members of the scheme have now been informed that their benefits will be reduced by 50 to 65 percent or more, even though the parent company is making healthy profits. About 380 people are now waiting to see what happens to their pension. There are people who have worked for 20 or 30 years who see their pension being taken away from them. It's an outrage that this can happen when they have paid in for so long."
Ben Middleton, an organiser for the Prospect union, was one of the delegation from the firm RWE Nukem, a nuclear consultancy. He told Socialist Worker, "The company has placed the final salary scheme under threat. Around 700 workers at five sites are affected. People are outraged that after years of work their pensions could be ebbing away and that certainly new entrants will not have the same rights as present workers."
At the rally after the march Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, said the protest was a "wake-up call to all politicians. There is a crisis and we need action." Dave Prentis from Unison said, "We see the breathtaking hypocrisy of Labour MPs and ministers who vote themselves the best pension scheme in Europe and then have the cheek to say we can't afford decent pensions for workers. This government was not elected to take away pension rights. It must start listening or face the consequences."
Janice Godrich from the PCS civil servants' union called for pensions defence committees, uniting unions and pensioner organisation, in cities across Britain. She also supported the idea of a midweek day of action to increase the pressure on the government.
Derek Simpson from Amicus said, "We have to have a change of policy and if personalities can't divorce themselves from policies then unfortunately they will have to go." Many in the audience saw this as a call for Blair to quit. All this sounds fine, and there was a good spirit on the march.
But given the towering importance of this issue and how it affects millions of workers directly, the turnout was scandalously small. The union leaders were not nearly active enough in mobilising their members and are terrified of confronting the government or giving space to people to the left of Labour.
Nor are they proposing action that in any way matches the threat looming over pensions. Instead small groups are left to fight on their own. This protest should be the start of something much larger. But the union leaders will need to be pressured very hard before they launch a fight.