Union leaders have called more action after the great success of last week’s pension strike by up to 1.5 million workers.
Across Britain workers who took part in that action are enthusiastic to press on with the defence of their pensions.
“Every day I am more convinced we are right, and every day I’m more sure we need further strikes and bigger demos to get justice from this rotten government,” says Anita Hillier, a classroom assistant from Wolverhampton.
The 11 unions which took action on 28 March have announced further strikes in three big regions of Britain on successive days.
On Tuesday 25 April workers will strike in the south of England, including London. On Wednesday 26 April workers will strike in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. On Thursday 27 April workers will strike in the north of England and the Midlands.
These strikes will be big, involving between 300,000 and 500,000 on each day.
They are also timed to be during term time for schools and colleges. The closure of some 17,500 schools was one of the most visible signs of the success of the 28 March action.
In addition there are plans in at least some of the regions to hold big demonstrations as a focus for the strike days. These include a march to the Scottish Parliament.
Every union member needs to throw themselves into building these strikes and protests.
As well as mobilising those in the local government pension scheme, they can also draw in wider layers of workers.
The 28 March strike gave a boost to the entire union movement. Demonstrations on 25-27 April can involve trade unionists engaged in their own battles such as health workers, civil service workers, postal workers and those in the private sector.
These regional actions are important, but not so powerful as national action. Nor do they give strikers and activists the same lift as seeing over a million people on strike together.
Hard hitting and escalating national action is the key to victory, together with a political campaign that draws in the millions who want to see resistance to Labour’s onslaughts against workers.
It is an open secret that plans are in place for a two-day national stoppage on 3 and 4 May to coincide with local elections in England. One union, Amicus, signalled this action by notifying employers in Lancashire about the proposed walkout.
Such a strike would be an excellent way to confront the government. Even if voting went ahead, it would be in the context of a mass strike, a perfect backdrop to weaken Blair and strengthen the left.
However, the union leaders have also plunged back into talks with the employers and the government while calling off some planned action as a “sign of goodwill”.
Deputy prime minister John Prescott enraged the unions on Thursday of last week when he put before parliament the regulations that will abolish the “rule of 85” from 1 October.
This will take away the right of some local government workers to retire at 60 if their age plus their years of service adds up to 85. Prescott’s action was a deliberate provocation—he didn’t need to move the regulations until July. It was designed to show that the government was going to defy the unions and the strike.
But within 24 hours the line had changed. “Informal discussions” took place between unions, Prescott’s office and the local government employers.
Then the TUC intervened on Friday of last week to set up fresh talks, which began on Monday.
A meeting of the local government employers was scheduled for Wednesday this week.
It is extremely unlikely that talks at this stage are going to produce anything remotely like an acceptable settlement.
The great danger is that the TUC leans on the unions to back a rotten deal.
It’s time to step up the pressure on the government
The employers and the press have demanded that Labour does not give an inch to striking public sector workers.Blair listens to such voices.
Instead of worrying about sending out “positive messages” to the employers, the unions should be upping the action.
That is why it was wrong to call off the week-long strike by 1,000 meat inspectors that was due to begin last Sunday.
Calling out relatively small groups of workers as part of a national strike is normally a very ineffective tactic.
In this case Unison had discovered a group of workers who did actually have the capacity to cause real disruption.
As Unison’s general secretary Dave Prentis said, “The major meat companies and the big supermarket chains faced losing millions of pounds through lost meat production.”
Instead of using this power, union leaders returned to wooing the ministers who had insulted them hours before by moving the parliamentary regulations.
Union members must push hard to build the pressure.
A key element of that is organising the people who have been inspired by the strike and the older activists reinvigorated by it.
Every workplace needs to push for discussions about the way forward and the sort of deal that would be acceptable.
There should be no agreement which would means worse conditions for either present or future workers.
Other branches should follow the example of Kirklees local government Unison branch.
It has passed a motion calling for a special union conference and a full ballot of the members before any settlement is accepted.
Turner commission offers no solutions
On Tuesday the pension commission headed by Lord Adair Turner came out with the not wholly unexpected news that, after considering various criticisms of its November report, that it had been right all along.
Turner reiterated calls for the state pension age to rise from 65 to 68 by 2050, and for workers to have to pay 5 percent of their wages into a privately-run pension scheme.
His “sweetener” was that pension rises after 2010 would be linked to the rise in earnings rather than inflation.
His plans have caused a split between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Blair likes the idea of making people work longer and is prepared to restore the link between pension increases and earnings, so long as it is paid for by slashing the array of means-tested benefits that millions rely on.
Brown wants to keep means-testing and not restore the earnings link.
Neither Blair nor Brown have any programme at all to tackle pensioner poverty.
The very least we should insist on is support for the measures put forward by the National Pensioners Convention.
The basic demands are:
- Raise the basic state pension from £84.25 to at least £114 a week
- Restore the link between pensions and earnings
- Pay the full state pension equally to all men and women from April 2006
MPs look forward to a good retirement
You should work until you drop, but we’re off at 60, or earlier, on a fat pension. That was the message from MPs last week.
Geoff Hoon, the leader of the Commons, said the government actuary had ruled that the exchequer’s contributions to the fund would go up from 24 percent to 26.8 percent. This will pour an extra £1.2 million a year into the fund.
Local government workers are fighting to protect the “rule of 85” which allows council employees to retire at 60 without suffering loss of pension for early retirement, provided their age and years of service add up to 85.
The government claims it must go because it is too expensive and breaches European Union rules.
However, MPs will continue to benefit from their own early retirement “rule of 80”.
While their normal retirement age is 65, they can draw their full pension from 60, provided their age plus service as an MP totals 80 years or more.
If Tony Blair leaves parliament in 2009 he willl be able to collect a pension of around £120,000 a year for the rest of his life. Even a backbencher can get an
index-linked pension of £12,000 a year after eight years as an MP.
The statement coincided with the announcement of MPs’ pay rises. In November the basic pay of an MP will rise from £59,095 to £60,277, while cabinet ministers’ salaries will go up from £133,997 to £136,677. Tony Blair’s pay will rise from £183,932 to £187,610.
Rail unions close to pensions strike
The prospect of strikes by rail workers over pensions came nearer this week after bosses refused to meet the unions.
The RMT, Aslef, TSSA and CSEU unions are campaigning jointly for a pensions deal that will keep contributions at a reasonable level. They are also fighting to maintain benefits and keep schemes open to new members.
Failure to resolve the dispute before pension fund rules trigger massive contribution increases from 1 July will result in coordinated ballots for strikes across the industry.
“A failure by government and many companies to talk to the trade unions means that the door to a negotiated settlement has been left firmly shut,” says RMT general secretary Bob Crow.
“Should rail unions press ahead with industrial action over the issue, then there is no reason why strikes should not coincide with those of public sector workers, who have led the way in defence of their pensions.”