Trade union leaders came under pressure this week to call nationwide action to stop New Labour’s assault on pensions. Five million public sector workers will face an extra five years of work—claiming their pensions at 65 instead of 60—if the government manages to ram through its “reforms”.
“This is nothing less than theft,” says Geoff, a member of the Natfhe lecturers’ union from Manchester. “We need to wake people up to the fact that New Labour wants to rob us of our lives.”
Research shows the longer you work, the earlier you die. Many public sector workers are forced to retire early because their jobs are so stressful, leading to ill health.
Almost three quarters of NHS paramedics have to leave work because of illness before reaching the existing retirement age of 60. Making groups of workers like these stay in their jobs for an additional five years is absurd.
Under the government’s plan, workers who retire at 60 will face a 30 percent cut in their pension. The government plans to steal from the pockets of millions of state employees.
Thousands of public sector workers feel betrayed by New Labour’s plan. Sharon, a civil service worker, says, “Pay is very low in the civil service. One of the main benefits of the job was the prospect of a decent pension in my old age. Now the government wants to take this away.”
David, a teacher in London, says, “People of my generation always thought we would have more leisure and retirement time. Now, all of a sudden, we’re being told we must work longer. Recently, a colleague died in service. Raising the pension age will mean many more teachers do.”
Union leaders also reacted angrily to the great pensions robbery. Dave Prentis, leader of Unison—Britain’s largest public sector union—echoed the anger of ordinary workers when he contrasted the government’s attack with the improvements in pensions that MPs recently voted through for themselves.
He told Unison’s Labour Link News, “Make no mistake—public sector workers are angry. They give a lifetime of service, putting up with lower pay and conditions so they should expect to have dignity in retirement.”
In December a meeting of public sector union leaders agreed a campaign of joint activity. A meeting of public sector union leaders on Tuesday of this week was to decide what form this action should take.
An assault on this scale needs the sort of response we have seen in Europe. Neo-liberal attacks on public sector pensions in France, Italy, Greece and Austria have all been met by the biggest strike waves in a generation.
In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s first government was brought down by general strikes against pension cuts, and over eight million struck in France in June 2003.
Local government workers in Britain are already discussing what action is needed. From April this year they will face an end to early retirement under the “rule of 85”. This scheme means local government workers can retire early if the sum of their age and the number of years worked is 85 or more. Scrapping the scheme will affect about half of all local government workers.
Phoebe Watkins, a council worker in Camden, explains what the attack would mean to her: “The chances of me receiving a reasonable pension for long service are disappearing. I joined the pension scheme at 22 and I could have expected to retire on a full pension after 33 years working for my local council. That right is now under threat.
“People who started working in local government when I did are up in arms. In December, around 200 people in my council, most of them manual workers, attended a very angry union meeting about the attacks.
“Several people made the point that the government can afford to fund our pensions—they found the money for the war in Iraq easily enough.”
Unison branches up and down the country are taking part in a consultation exercise about what action they should take. Some areas are holding indicative strike ballots and mass meetings.
In Newham, east London, the Unison office has been overwhelmed with calls from members urging a ballot for strike action without delay. Union activists in all areas of the public sector must start campaigning now. Section and workplace meetings need to spell out what the attacks mean and pass resolutions demanding strike action across all the unions.
These motions should then be sent to unions, locally and nationally to show our leaders that rank and file workers are prepared for a serious fight to defend pensions. Union reps should make sure that everyone wears badges calling for strike action.
Across every town and city, activists can co-ordinate meetings with hospital workers, refuse collectors, housing workers and other public sector workers to organise joint activity.
Activists in the NUT, Britain’s biggest teachers’ union, plan to lobby their union executive on Wednesday 26 January, to press the need for action.
Lee, a Southampton civil service worker, sums up the need for a serious fight: “It will take organisation and struggle on a scale not seen for some years to defeat this attack.”
Above all, union activists need to take whatever action is called by the union leaders, build it, and use it to ram home the scale of the attack. And we should extend it, using it as a springboard for the sort of action—mass protests and strikes—that would really stop New Labour in its tracks.
Socialist Worker four-page pension supplement
- What the governement attacks will mean for you
- The four great myths about pensions
To download union motions, leaflets and petitions, go to www.swp.org.uk and follow the link