A massive battle over pensions could be on its way. In a remarkable week, the opening shots were fired in seven major disputes, all of which could see strike action.
The moves by private and public sector workers could begin to challenge the attacks on the right to retire — unless employers and the government retreat, or trade union leaders rein back the resistance.
Workers involved in looming battles over pensions include:
Local government workers
Up to one million local government workers seem certain to begin strike ballots in February over the attacks on their pension scheme.
This fight is centred on the government’s decision to abolish the “rule of 85”, which allows some workers to draw their unreduced pension at 60 if they have 25 years service.
Unison union leaders have been in talks with other unions about the timing of a ballot.
Unison have already begun coordinating plans with those of the FBU firefighters’ union. FBU leaders are set to recommend strikes over pensions to delegates at an emergency recall conference on 16 February.
Firefighters can currently retire at 50. This agreement recognises that few of us awaiting rescue would be confident that a group of 60 year olds can be expected to perform this hard and dangerous work.
But the government now wants to raise the pension age to 55 for many of the present staff and to 60 for new starters.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack says, “Fire crews feel they have been kicked in the teeth. Politicians are quick to publicly praise our skills and dedication, while at the same time trying to pickpocket our pensions.
“The police have been granted protection for current members of their pension schemes. We don’t understand why we are being singled out for worse treatment and the public will not understand it either.
“We have asked ministers to answer that question at a face to face meeting but they have not replied. Firefighters pay 11 percent of their pay towards their pensions.
“That is much more than almost any other group of employees in the public or private sector. Judges, for example, pay a maximum of 3 percent.
“We are planning a recall of our conference and asking it to back calls for strike action. We want to coordinate our campaign with over a million other public service workers who want to protect their pensions.”
British Airways pilots
British Airways (BA) pilots are heading up the challenge to their bosses’ assault on the pensions of 35,000 workers.
Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the pilots’ Balpa union, says, “Pilots are incensed. They could lose up to 36 percent of their pension entitlement. A pension is deferred pay.
“A promise is a promise, a commitment is a commitment, and BA has to honour its pension pledges to its workforce. BA pilots are standing absolutely firm on this issue.”
McAuslan has written to the 2,800 Balpa members at BA advising them to let their families know “what is happening, because pensions are not just another one of this year’s terms and conditions, they are for life.
“The time may come when we will need your support for action to protect your pension and you in turn may need your family’s support. It is as serious as that.
“BA says its employees should pay off the [pension fund] deficit. Pilots reject that totally. If British Airways has debts to its bank or to its creditors, it pays those debts.
“If it has a debt to its workforce and pensioners, which it has in the pension fund deficit, it has to meet that responsibility too.”
The union has set up a special website (www.befairba.com) and produced a DVD for the campaign.
Scottish Power workers
Scottish Power workers, concentrated in Merseyside, North Wales and the central belt of Scotland, are organising after bosses proposed that every worker must pay 2 percent more of their salary in pension contributions.
New starters would face an increase in their pension age from 63 to 65 and the replacement of a final salary scheme with an inferior money purchase scheme.
Money purchase schemes are much cheaper for companies and payouts depend wholly on stock market performance.
In addition the company is slashing a scheme where the firm matches workers’ investment in a share scheme, a fund which has acted as a kind of “second pension” for many.
In September, Scottish Power declared profits up 40 percent to £326 million for the previous six months.
While the company is squeezing its workers, it has squandered billions on failed business ventures.
In 1999, Scottish Power bought the US energy business PacifiCorp for $10.7 billion.
It immediately plunged into problems associated with the gyrations of the US energy market, and last year Scottish Power sold PacifiCorp for $9.4 billion.
That’s a crude loss of $1.3 billion. But when inflation and other costs are taken into account, the true figure is nearer to $2 billion. Why should Scottish Power workers now be asked to make sacrifices?
This week Philip Bowman— a man with no background in running utilities—took over as the new chief executive of Scottish Power.
He prepared Allied Domecq for sale, and there are now strong rumours that Scottish Power could soon be absorbed by the German firm Eon.
The destruction of workers’ pensions must not be allowed to become a tasty bait for corporate sharks circling Scottish Power.
Dougie Rooney, national officer of the Amicus union says, “Scottish Power is a highly profitable company, and its pension plans are about the likely sale of the company and the subsequent shares that the board of directors will be entitled to.
“Amicus will resist the plans. We will be consulting with our members on what action they are prepared to take to defend their pensions.”
The Prospect union, which has 1,200 members in Scottish Power had a special meeting on the issue last weekend.
The anger over plans by the Co-op to end the final salary pension scheme for everyone across its businesses has led to a formal call by transport workers for a strike ballot.
T&G shop stewards, representing around 1,000 transport workers, met last week and called on their union to organise a strike vote.
Oil tanker drivers
Oil tanker drivers at transport contractor Wincanton, who deliver petrol to Tesco forecourts in the south of England, have voted for strike action over pensions and job cuts when their work transfers to new contractors, TDG.
The T&G represents the 140 drivers across depots covering the south of England as well as some parts of South Wales.
Union leaders said the drivers have responded angrily in the wake of a reported intention by TDG not to take on all of the drivers under the Tupe transfer arrangements, which protect workers’ terms and conditions in situations like this.
In addition to all these defensive struggles, London’s 25,000 bus workers are going onto the offensive over pensions.
They want the 15,000 workers presently in money purchase schemes to be transferred into the Transport for London final salary pension scheme.
Together, these struggles represent seven possibilities for action. The question is whether the union leaders can be pressured to act.
If these fights led to action they could transform the confidence and fighting spirit of the British trade union movement, forcing the government and the employers onto the defensive.
Unlike some other cases where companies savaged their workers’ pensions, all the private sector disputes involve heavily unionised workforces.
And they involve big companies which set the trend for the rest and are hugely profitable.
There must be no backsliding. In particular the fact these disputes could break out in the run-up to the May elections should be seen as an opportunity to step up the pressure on the government, not a reason to keep quiet to “help Labour”.
Every trade unionist should demand their leaders encourage a wave of resistance. And at the local level workers must be preparing for action by producing propaganda, challenging the bosses’ myths, and organising meetings in their own sections, jointly with other sections and between unions.
New pamplet is a weapon in the struggle
The new Socialist Worker pamphlet, Pensions, Profit and Resistance by Charlie Kimber, is becoming an essential handbook for trade union and pensioner activists. Leading pensioners’ campaigner Gordon McLennan says, “This is an excellent pamphlet. Charlie Kimber is to be congratulated. It presents a totally different picture of the pensions issue from that of the Turner commission and similar doomsday scenarios. “It shows how the so called pensions crisis can be resolved without raising the age at which the state pension is paid. It also demonstrates effectively how the long standing demand of the pensioners and trade union movements to pool pensions with earnings can be implemented. “The tribute paid by Kimber to the National Pensioners Convention and the recommendation of their ten point pensioners manifesto is well merited. “A wide sale of the pamphlet to pensioners and trade union members would be a valuable contribution to the campaigning needed in the year ahead.” Activists are selling the pamphlet across the movement, and finding a big audience for it. Dave Sellars from south London said, “At our Respect meeting last week 16 out of 17 people bought the Pensions, Profit and Resistance pamphlet. It was easy to sell.”
The new Socialist Worker pamphlet, Pensions, Profit and Resistance by Charlie Kimber, is becoming an essential handbook for trade union and pensioner activists.
Leading pensioners’ campaigner Gordon McLennan says, “This is an excellent pamphlet. Charlie Kimber is to be congratulated. It presents a totally different picture of the pensions issue from that of the Turner commission and similar doomsday scenarios.
“It shows how the so called pensions crisis can be resolved without raising the age at which the state pension is paid. It also demonstrates effectively how the long standing demand of the pensioners and trade union movements to pool pensions with earnings can be implemented.
“The tribute paid by Kimber to the National Pensioners Convention and the recommendation of their ten point pensioners manifesto is well merited.
“A wide sale of the pamphlet to pensioners and trade union members would be a valuable contribution to the campaigning needed in the year ahead.”
Activists are selling the pamphlet across the movement, and finding a big audience for it.
Dave Sellars from south London said, “At our Respect meeting last week 16 out of 17 people bought the Pensions, Profit and Resistance pamphlet. It was easy to sell.”
Pensions, Profits and Resistance is available from your Socialist Worker seller and is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com