Around 1.5 million workers from at least ten unions could soon be on strike over pensions. It is a prospect that will frighten Labour ministers and give heart to all those who want to put an end to the slaughter of workers’ pensions.
For too long there have been words but no generalised action from trade union leaders. Now there is a chance to hit back against the relentless rise in the pension age, the repeated demands for workers to pay more into their pension fund and the destruction of schemes which offer payments based on final salaries.
A strike on this scale could also have much wider resonance as the government continues the occupation of Iraq and gears up for a series of battles over education, welfare and the NHS.
On 18 March demonstrators will come to London for a protest marking three years since the start of the war on Iraq.
At around the same time a massive strike could confront a central part of the government’s neo-liberal agenda.
These days in March could strike a powerful blow against Tony Blair’s regime.
And just weeks later, on 4 May, the local elections will take place.
Ten unions said on Monday that they would ballot up to 1.5 million workers over planned cuts to the local government and firefighters’ pension schemes.
The Unison, GMB, T&G, Amicus, Ucatt, CYWU, Nipsa, Napo, NUT and FBU unions are preparing for a vote from mid-February.
The central issue is the abolition of the “rule of 85”, which allows some local government workers to retire at 60 with an unreduced pension if they have done 25 years service.
Unison’s general secretary, Dave Prentis, said the dispute was the biggest issue the union had faced for many years.
“It affects the rights of one million of our members who have paid 6 percent of their salaries into their pension scheme for decades to save for their retirement and are now being told that the deal is off,” he said.
“The local government employers and the government should be in no doubt of how serious we are.”
The average pension for the scheme is £3,800 a year, but for women who make up 72 percent of scheme members, it is less than £2,000 a year.
New Labour widened the assault last week when, after probing by Scottish Socialist Party MSP Carolyn Leckie, the local government minister Tom McCabe confirmed that the abolition of the “rule of 85” would extend to Scotland as well.
The prospect of resistance over pensions has gone down well with local government workers. Janet Fidler, a schools meals worker from the West Midlands who is in the GMB, said, “The government is taking away our rights. we have to stand up for our pensions and our children’s pensions. I do a very hard job and will only get a pension of £34 a week. But I want it at 60, not at 65.”
Rob Jackson, the Unison workplace rep at Chorlton social services in Manchester, said, “People are really angry about the attacks on pensions. After last year’s deal we sent a statement to the TUC that we were unhappy about the betrayal of future generations’ pensions.
“People were disappointed they weren’t able to strike last year. People are really up for a fight.”
John McLoughlin, chair of Tower Hamlets Unison, speaking in a personal capacity, said, “We need a massive campaign to win these ballots and to show the government and our own union leaders that we are serious.
“There is a danger that a poor compromise will be agreed before action starts or it will be just one strike. We need escalating action and to think how to widen solidarity.
“For example teachers could refuse to do work normally done by teaching assistants or to cross picket lines set up by caretakers.
“The local government scheme is worse than the one in the NHS or the civil service. It is particularly bad for women. We should be pressing for retirement for all at 60.”
The TUC has a mandate to call a demonstration over pensions. If it were on the first strike day it would be a beacon for all workers suffering pension attacks, and everyone who opposes the plans to raise the state pension age to 67 and beyond.
It could be as electric a day as the protest over Irish Ferries in Ireland before Christmas.
There must be no backing down from this battle. We need to increase the pressure on the union leaders by, for example, holding meetings in sections, branches and across unions, as well as events like the pensions rally in Bristol with Tony Benn. Speakers from Stop the War will raise the mood at every pensions meeting.