The simmering confrontation between public sector workers and the New Labour government over pensions looks set to intensify in coming months.
Unison, the country’s largest union representing over a million public sector workers, has voted overwhelmingly to work with other unions in defending members’ pensions — using industrial action if necessary.
Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary, speaking at the union’s annual conference last week, called for “a coordinated fight across all public service unions” over pensions.
He added, “I repeat the promise I made to the government yesterday — we will take strike action across all sectors and with our sister unions to defend our pensions.”
The threat of a united strike in March by 1.25 million workers forced the government to back off from its pensions proposals.
Deputy prime minister John Prescott promised to revoke legislation that would have raised the pension age to 65 and slashed payments to workers in local government, the civil service and education.
Prentis assured delegates that he would hold the government to its word, saying, “If the regulations are not withdrawn, we will not negotiate—we will move to a ballot on strike action.”
Unison’s tough stance is mirrored by other public sector unions, such as the PCS civil service workers’ union.
At the PCS union conference last month, general secretary Mark Serwotka said, “We were right to engage the government and demand the right to retain the final salary pension scheme and the right to retire at 60 for those who wish to.”
He added that if the climbdown was just a ploy, then “the next time we will see five million public sector workers uniting together.”
The anger is also spreading to unions not directly affected by the government’s current plans.
The CWU communication workers’ union, which represents postal and telecoms staff, passed a motion on pensions at its annual conference last month denouncing the government’s attacks as “totally unacceptable”.
The motion added that “CWU members may well be next in line to be attacked by the government and our employers”, and pledged an immediate ballot for strike action should the government attempt to attack its members’ pension rights.
There is no doubt that these commitments from union leaders and conference motions reflect genuine anger over the government’s plans.
But there is some concern among activists over whether the union leaders’ actions will match up to their rhetoric. Defending pensions requires the willingness to call for and organise mass united strikes, coordinated across different unions.
Such action would inevitably amount to a serious political challenge by the labour movement to a Labour government.
It would stand as an example to other workers of what can be achieved, and could risk igniting their anger over a whole range of other issues.
That is why it is vital for rank and file trade union activists to develop links with each other on all levels and collectively exert pressure to keep their leaders in line.