The chasm between the hopes of millions of workers for a decent retirement and New Labour’s plans to make us all work longer was laid bare at the TUC conference last week.
Delegates unanimously voted for a campaign to resist moves to raise the pension age for public sector workers. They also slammed the running down of the state pension and attacks on private sector schemes.
But by the end of the week work and pensions secretary David Blunkett was floating the possibility of raising the pension age not just to 65 but to 67, in an echo of what George Bush is pushing in the US.
It was the threat of a strike by 1.25 million public sector workers in March of this year that forced the government to retreat from imposing a higher pension age before the election.
“To those in New Labour watching now, make no mistake — we’ll do it again if we have to,” Dave Prentis, general secretary of the Unison union, told the conference.
It was a message repeated by a dozen general secretaries and senior officials at a fringe meeting organised by the PCS civil service workers’ union.
Its general secretary, Mark Serwotka, told the meeting, “We are determined to defend the pension age of public sector workers. No compulsory increase in the pension age is acceptable.”
Prepared for action
Many unions which were not part of the coordinated ballot for a strike in March now say they are prepared to join action if the government presses ahead.
Jerry Bartlett of the NASUWT teaching union told the fringe meeting that its leadership had underestimated the strength of feeling over the issue.
He also doubted that the government would make significant concessions in talks which are now taking place across the different public sector services.
Paul Noon is general secretary of the Prospect union which represents higher grades in the civil service. “Technical difficulties prevented us from balloting in March. Those difficulties have been sorted out now,” he said. Even the non-TUC Royal College of Nursing has said it would consider industrial action.
In all some five million public sector workers, from council staff, through civil service workers, teachers, firefighters and health workers, could take action in the coming months.
It is the threat of that action that has stalled the government’s attack so far. Trade secretary Alan Johnson struck a contrite note when he spoke to the TUC and accepted that “our original approach was wrong”.
He said, “Public servants have a right to expect proposals to change their pensions arrangements to be discussed and negotiated with their trade unions.” But he added that the government still wants to change the “retirement at 60 ethos”.
No one really expects the current talks to meet the hopes of public sector workers of maintaining the current pension age, let alone reducing it and increasing pensions.
Mark Serwotka spoke for many when he said that the government is likely to come up with only token concessions “which are designed to break the unity” that has been built up so far.
That’s made easier by the fact that there are different schemes covering different public sector workers. And the government is already trailing the argument that because workers in the private sector have seen their pension rights eroded, public sector workers have to accept the same worsening.
Restore the link
No union leader at the TUC could do anything other than proclaim their commitment to unity across the public sector, rejecting attempts to play off government employees against workers in industry, and restoring the link between the state pension and earnings.
But the pressures to cut a deal with the government at the expense of other groups of workers are strong — especially for those union leaders who still hanker for “social partnership” with New Labour.
The policy passed at the TUC calls on all unions not to come to an agreement with the government without considering the impact on others.
But ensuring that happens will come down to generating pressure at the base of every union to fight the pensions attack.
The official TUC policy is now for a national pensions demonstration, and to support activists coming together across the unions and pensioners’ organisations to campaign locally. The National Pensioners Convention has already called a day of action for 12 October.
“It was great that the pensions policy was passed at the TUC,” says Lorraine Harding, who attended as an observer for the PCS union. “But we need to put the pressure on now for a date for the national demonstration and for a clear cut-off point to talks with the government.
“This issue ties up with pay and privatisation, where we should have the same kind of unity. Making sure the unions deliver will mean serious organising at grassroots level.”