The battle against the government’s assault on pensions suffered a heavy blow last week when leaders of 11 trade unions called off strikes which had been scheduled to defend the local government pensions scheme.
In the week when the victory against an unpopular new labour law in France had demonstrated what was possible on the basis of determined and escalating struggle, the British union leaders threw away the momentum created by the magnificent 28 March strike by up to 1.5 million workers.
The framework deal accepted by the negotiators last week effectively accepts the abolition of the rule of 85, which presently allows some local government workers to retire at 60 if they have 25 year’s service.
Talks will now take place between the unions, the government and the council employers on the basis that half the savings from the abolition of the rule of 85 will be used to protect the pension rights of present workers.
Nobody can be sure how far the money will go. The employers’ estimate is billions of pounds less than the unions’ calculation, and the deputy prime minister’s office is still using the formula “that up to 50 percent” of savings should be used for pension protection rather than “50 percent”.
There is no guarantee that all present workers will have their pension protected, the aim which Unison union general secretary Dave Prentis has declared as his target.
The only certainty is that by accepting this framework the union leaders have totally ruled out any possibility of maintaining the rule of 85 for future workers – which is Unison’s conference policy and which should be the aim of the campaign.
Many activists were enraged by the decision to call off the strikes.
Alice Marjoribanks, a teaching assistant from London, was almost in tears when she rang Socialist Worker to say, “I worked so hard to get people out on strike.
“It was such a great day. Now I’m terrified that we will not get any real improvement on what we had before, and that will weaken the union.”
John Fricker from Cornwall says, “I feel very uneasy about this. I can see no scope for compromise without the unions selling out. MPs are to retain their pension scheme’s ‘80 year rule’, the police, armed forces and fire service (at least for existing members) schemes have ‘75 year rules’.
“Present civil service workers, teachers and NHS workers can retire at 60 without penalty. If the 85 year rule is lost, local government workers will have been successfully singled out for pension cuts.
“Perhaps we need to learn a few lessons from the French on keeping the pressure going.”
Tony Staunton, branch secretary of Plymouth city Unison, says, “On 28 March we saw the biggest strike in Britain since 1926.
“In Plymouth, picket lines from early morning proved a huge support for the strike action, with normal services shut down.
“A joint trade union rally of over 1,000 council workers was followed by 1,500 marching proud and loud through the city streets, blocking traffic and showing our strength.
“The Labour council, the government, the national bosses of the Local Government Association and the media were all shocked at the solidarity and strength of national action that shut thousands of schools, depots, offices and transport links in defence of our pensions.
“But now the union leaders have called off the strikes on promises of talks about protection, claiming that this is ‘the best deal we can get’.
“Many union activists, including myself, believe this is not the time to call our action off when it has brought historic unity to our side and disarray among the employers.”
There was also anger that the decision to call off strikes did not go to a ballot. There is an even wider issue at stake here.
The 28 March strike gave a huge boost to union recruitment and organisation. It also gave a glimpse of how the entire British trade union movement could be mobilised for a fightback over pensions. That vision has been comprehensively abandoned by the union leaders at the head of the campaign.
Confined to the most limited horizons, terrified of anything more than polite confrontation with Labour ministers, they have limited the dispute rather than broadening it into a bigger struggle that would benefit tens of millions of workers now and in the future.
However, the battle is not over. Meetings must be held in as many workplaces, branches and regions as possible, and motions sent to union executives condemning the deal.
Whatever consultation takes place in the unions over the deal must be used to generate a wave of demands to restart the strikes.
The acceptance of the deal by Unison’s local government service group executive by 17 votes to six underlines the importance of the elections to that body which are going on now, and the need to vote for the Unison United Left (UUL) candidates. All the present UUL members voted against the deal.
And the political fallout with Labour will continue. Unison has not renewed funding the party yet, because the issue is not settled.
Dave Watson, head of policy for Unison in Scotland, said last weekend, “We are not giving the Labour Party any help at the moment because of the dispute. Grants to individual Unison members who are candidates have been pulled.
“We won’t be giving any money to the Labour campaign in the present Moray by-election for the Scottish parliament. We won’t be urging people to vote Labour or asking members to help with leafleting.
“God forbid that this dispute has not been resolved favourably by the Scottish parliament elections next year, but if it hasn’t we would have to consider our position.”
The union leaders unwillingness to take on Labour has led to this deal. Building an alternative to Labour is a central part of reviving the union rank and file now.