A massive strike over pensions at the end of March, involving 1.5 million workers, came a step closer last week after important moves by the Unison and the GMB trade unions.
A meeting of Unison’s local government service group executive issued a clear call for the action to began with at least a one-day strike involving all those balloted, and possibly a two-day strike.
John McDermott is a member of the executive. Speaking in a personal capacity, he told Socialist Worker, “It was a very good meeting with a strong mood for resistance to the government’s and the employers’ attacks.
“Members wanted the strike campaign to begin with a bang, and for escalation afterwards.
“That means the first action could be followed by longer strikes. In addition there would be sections on indefinite strike between the days of mass action.
“The committee made it clear that we do not just want present scheme members to be protected. We also want future generations to have at least the same rights as now.”
Unison is on a timetable to begin balloting a million local government workers on 20 February.
Meanwhile the GMB, which represents 200,000 local government workers, announced that “ballot papers will be sent out on 27 February and must be returned by 13 March. The first day of action is planned for 28 March.”
On 18 March protesters will come to London for the Stop the War Coalition demonstration marking three years since the start of the war on Iraq.
Just ten days later the pensions strike could confront a central plank of the New Labour government’s neo?liberal agenda.
These days in March could deal a powerful blow to Tony Blair.
And just weeks later, on Thursday 4 May, council elections will take place. Unison reminded its members last week, “The local elections provide a very important focus for our campaign.
“When you talk to your MP or councillor, please highlight the fact that the sum total of Unison members alone is greater than the majority in many wards and constituencies.
“They cannot expect our support if they pursue policies which are unfair and harmful to employees who provide vital public services.”
Reports from firefighters suggest that their FBU union’s recall conference, set for 16 February, will hear strong backing for strikes.
Ian Lehair, the FBU London region’s campaign coordinator, told Socialist Worker, “In our region we have arranged meetings in 75 percent of stations. To give some sense of how they’re going, in Romford the vote was 43 for strikes, two against and one abstention.
“In Chelsea it was 26 for, none against and no abstentions. In Euston it was 21 for, none against, no abstentions.
“Clearly if this pattern is continued then London will go to the conference with a very strong mandate to support strikes.
“There is an overwhelming feeling against the attacks on our pensions. We put in 11 percent of our wages and now the promises made when we paid that money are being broken.”
Justin Thomas, a Wiltshire firefighter, says, “At station meetings there is a great deal of discussion – about the strike vote but also about the shape of the action we need to take.
“Some people are suggesting we start with a two-week strike. Certainly there is an awareness that we need to take hard, concerted action.
“We all know this is a massive issue affecting millions of people. We want to strike alongside others, but firefighters realise we can only defend our right to a future if we’re prepared to take action ourselves.”
Every trade unionist should be thinking how they can add their weight to the pressure over pensions.
A victory for local government workers and firefighters would transform the situation and increase the confidence of other groups in the public and private sector to fight back.
Who is balloting?
Ten unions are balloting over planned cuts to the local government and firefighters’ pension schemes.
The Unison, GMB, T&G, Amicus, Ucatt, Nipsa, CYWU, Napo, NUT and FBU unions are preparing for a vote from mid-February.
The rule of 85
The central issue is the attempt by the government to abolish of the “rule of 85”.
This rule allows some local government workers to retire at 60 with an unreduced pension if they have completed 25 years service.
Pensions, profit and resistance
The new Socialist Worker pamphlet by Charlie Kimber is vital reading for trade unionists and pension activists
Available for £1 from your Socialist Worker seller. Also available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848