Members of Britain’s biggest public sector union have challenged their leadership’s stance on pensions negotiations, and came within a narrow margin of reigniting strike action to press their claim.
Delegates were meeting for the Unison union’s local government conference, which began in Bournemouth last Sunday. The atmosphere of the conference was shaped by two events.
The first was the 28 March national one-day strike to defend the local government pension scheme, the largest union action since the 1926 General Strike.
The second was the decision by the leadership of the public sector unions to suspend further action while negotiating with the government and employers.
The key debate of the conference, on Sunday afternoon, saw two rival emergency motions put to members. The first was supported by the union leadership and called for continued negotiations. The second called for a return to strike action so that the union could negotiate from a position of strength.
The first motion was passed and the second fell, but only after a card vote was called in which delegates representing 350,381 union members voted for the union leadership’s position with 330,422 votes against.
Those arguing for strike action won wide applause from the conference. Sharon Campion from Sandwell branch in the West Midlands told delegates, “The only reason the government are negotiating with us at all is because of the 28 March strike.
“Being on strike gave people confidence in themselves and in the union.
“They fully expected to be on strike for more than one day and they were ready and willing to do that.
“At the same time that we were preparing for strikes there were strikes in France about the labour law the government was trying to introduce to allow employers to sack young workers. [French president] Chirac said, ‘We’ll put it on the statute books but we’ll not use it.’
“The workers and students in France said, ‘We’re not stupid.’ They carried on striking and demonstrating and the government caved in. We should take our lead from France and tell this government, ‘We’re not idiots’.”
Tom Clark from South Lanarkshire said, “The phrase ‘extremely well supported’ does not touch our experience in Scotland. The words ‘brilliant’, ‘fantastic’ and ‘amazing’ reflect our experience. We marched through the streets of Glasgow with our weans and our pensioners.
“Then what happened? The wheels came off the bus, as they say in Scotland.
“We’ve been conned by the Labour Party who would rather fund an illegal war in Iraq than pay what we’re contractually and legal obliged through our pensions.”
Criticism of Labour, and in particular the war in Iraq, was a theme throughout the debate.
There was also deep concern that the strategy of the union negotiators relies on a judicial review into the government’s plan to scrap the rule of 85 – the rule allowing local government workers to retire at 60 if they have 25 years of service.
Phoebe Watkins from Camden branch, London, said the leadership’s motion “leaves our pensions rights in the hands of the judiciary, not well known for defending workers’ rights.
“No one has answered the question – what happens if the judicial review fails? The one way of securing a win is going on strike,” she said.
“28 March was an unprecedented success. We’ve had one million workers out, 17,000 schools shut across the country, tunnels and transport shut, and Unison recruited 49,000 new members into the bargain.”
The mood for action in the conference meant that many of those arguing for the leadership’s position had to do so by promising more action if negotiations failed to make a breakthrough.
For instance, Gary Ramsden from Derbyshire county branch, who backed the leadership’s motion, said, “We’ve advocated strike action from day one to defend the local government pension scheme… We remain ready whenever the call comes again.
“We cannot turn the membership on and off like taps. We have to build for their support and we have to earn it.”
The tone of the debate and the close vote show that opposition to the leadership’s position runs right through the union and is not confined to the “hard left”.
Many workers realise that the attack on the local government scheme is part of a far wider assault on pensions. New Labour’s determination over this question is demonstrated by its latest proposals – scrapping the rule of 85 for those under 46 and only giving full pensions protection to those over 50.
The union leadership’s position going into the conference was that negotiations would last until 2007, and then a final deal would be put to members.
Union members need to fight now to make sure the future of their pension scheme is not left in the hand of the law lords, the government, employers and union negotiators.