The New Labour government’s attack on public sector pensions suffered a damaging blow when the Scottish Labour Party annual conference unanimously opposed the move last week.
At the start of this week New Labour was still pressing ahead with its pensions robbery. The results of strike ballots by 1.25 million public sector workers were due mid-week and union leaders expected a further round of talks with ministers.
But the debate at Labour’s Scottish conference underlined the chasm between the government and millions of workers in central and local government, schools and colleges.
The conference, held in Dundee, voted to back a motion from the Unison, Amicus and GMB unions condemning the government’s attempt to raise public sector workers’ retirement age by five years.
Michelle Brankin, who moved the conference resolution and who is a member of Unison’s national executive, told Socialist Worker, “We were all talking about the pensions issue. I was really unhappy at the number of low paid people who are contributing to the pension scheme and can barely afford to.
“Now, when it’s time for them to retire, their right to gain access to their own money is being taken away from them.
“People like paramedics or healthcare assistants — they do heavy work, lifting — they can’t keep on working to the retirement age. If you make them work another five years it’s going to be working them until they’re in their graves. It’s absolutely appalling.”
She contrasted the pensions earned by public sector workers with those of the bosses at the huge private contracting firms. “We’ve got Clive Thompson, head of Rentokil, which gets contracts in the public sector. His pension entitlement is £734,000 a year. That’s £14,000 a week.
“When you take that and compare it to the average pension in the local government scheme — £3,800 a year or £73 a week — it makes you sick that these people get that kind of money and they grump and moan about our money.”
Michelle said the conference vote would send a clear signal to the government. “The motion was passed unanimously. The message is very clear — people aren’t going to sit back and take this.
“It will make the government sit up and take notice.”
She emphasised the importance of the strike ballots across many public sector unions over the pensions attack. “Hopefully we’ll get massive, overwhelming support for industrial action.”
The pensions attack could have political consequences too, Michelle believes.
She explained how at a meeting of home care workers, one woman said she was pulling out of the pension scheme because she was struggling to pay the contributions and was no longer sure she would get the full benefits.
“If they don’t walk away from the pension scheme, they’ll walk away from the Labour Party — they might walk away from both,” Michelle said. “There are many people who have left the Labour Party. Decisions like this have an effect on how people vote.
“The message the government is sending out is there’s no future unless you want to work until you drop.”
Members of the Ucatt building workers’ union in local government are also balloting for strikes. Union general secretary Alan Ritchie explains, “We do not advocate lightly a call to industrial action, we do so only where it is considered absolutely necessary to protect our members’ welfare.
“The terms and conditions of a Ucatt member’s pension scheme are no different from any other terms and conditions they work to. They have all been hard won, and Ucatt will continue to protect them by whatever means necessary.
“Whilst we recognise that the office of the deputy prime minister (ODPM) has attempted to find a formula to circumvent our ballot, this has failed.
“The ODPM is now intent on imposing a series of detrimental amendments to our members’ pension scheme. These amendments are unjust and strike at the heart of their terms and conditions.
“The changes are being imposed on 1 April 2005 and will effect the ability of the majority of scheme members to retire early.
“The net result of the changes is that by cutting benefits, workers will be forced to work right up to 65 years of age.
“In addition the minimum age they could receive a pension, for example if they are made redundant, is being raised from 50 to 55 years of age.
“The ODPM is refusing to drop the detrimental amendments, so Ucatt is balloting for strike action, with a strong recommendation for a yes vote.”
Local officers of the largest teachers’ union, the NUT, were to meet on Thursday of this week to discuss the results of a survey of members asking what action to take over the attacks on their pension scheme.
The union has said that where there is strong support for strike action in the survey, those areas will be balloted.
Kevin Courtney, secretary of the NUT in Camden, says, “Many local secretaries will be arguing that we should not set the bar too high before calling strike action.
“No date has been mentioned, but it is clear that we should ballot to come out alongside the lecturers’ union Natfhe, which is already voting to strike on 14 April.
“What has given confidence to teachers in my area is the prospect of joint action alongside other unions.”
A strike on 14 April would be a “second wave” of action following the strike in central and local government planned for Wednesday 23 March.
Unions that are set to strike in two weeks time have ballots that would also allow them to come out again on 14 April — three weeks before the expected general election.
Activists across unions are organising now to build the momentum. Part of that is organising city and town wide demonstrations, uniting all the unions, during the strike in two weeks time.