Next week we will know if 1.5 million workers are ready to confront the government in what the unions are calling the biggest action since the General Strike of 1926.
The immediate focus will be on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) and the abolition of the “rule of 85”.
This is the regulation which at present allows some workers to retire at 60 on a full pension if they have done 25 years or more service in the sectors covered by the LGPS.
But in truth the battle will be about a much wider question – whether workers will meekly accept massive cuts in their living standards as governments and firms across Europe launch a huge neo-liberal assault on pensions.
Most of the unions balloting will announce their results next Tuesday. If, as expected, there is a yes vote then a crucial battle will begin.
Union activists in many areas have thrown themselves into building the biggest possible strike vote.
Unison union members in Newham, east London, held a day of action on Friday of last week to publicise the ballot and call for a yes vote.
Almost 4,000 workers in Newham are taking part in the ballot.
Union reps travelled around the borough visiting workplaces in cars decorated with brightly coloured union balloons and posters. Some sections stopped work briefly to discuss the dispute.
Irene Stacey, Unison branch officer, told a rally at the old town hall in Stratford at lunch time, “This fight is not just for us. It is for our children as well. How can the government expect people to work until they die?
“That is what the raising of the pension age will mean – life expectancy for caretakers, school cleaners and the lowest paid workers hasn’t risen much. So if they do this, many will never see the pension they have paid for.”
Workers chanted “hands off our pensions” and held up placards demanding the war in Iraq was stopped and the money used for pensions.
In one office three people joined the union, including an 18 year old and someone who had worked for Newham for 15 years without joining the union.
The fightback over pensions is building the unions.
In the most recent issue of In Focus, Unison’s activists’ magazine, Mark Fysch from Oxfordshire county branch writes, “Our membership has grown since the pensions ballot last year.
“Up to 30 percent of members are between 45 and 55 and issues like pensions are really important to them.
“We’ve had nearly 700 new members sign up in the past 12 months, but we do have a lot retiring, so our net gain is 200.”
Mike Killian from Manchester says, “I’ve got a good feeling about the pensions strike – 46 Unison members came to the pensions consultation meeting in my building last week, and the show of hands was unanimous for a yes vote in the strike ballot.
“Even better, all but two or three ticked the checklist to say they had posted off the ballot paper. So it looks like a good turnout from our building – hopefully for picketing too.”
Geoff Brown, secretary of Manchester trades council, reports, “Over 70 local trade union activists met in Manchester to hear Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades’ Union, Brian Gallagher, Amicus national pensions campaign officer, Peter Allenson, T&G national secretary for local government, and Giovanna Holt, GMB regional officer.
“They called for support for strike action in defence of the LGPS.
“Speakers from the floor included a number of local government Unison stewards as well as pensioner reps, health workers and one of a group of trade unionists visiting from Germany who stressed neo-liberalism as the common enemy facing workers everywhere.
“There was unanimous support for the march and rally being organised in Manchester on 28 March.”
It is crucial that this major push by the unions is not strangled at birth. The union leaders are likely to propose a one-day national strike of 1.5 million workers on 28 March. That is a good start, but it is not enough.
Nor will simply calling out a small number of sections on indefinite action be likely to break the government and the employers.
There needs to be escalating strikes, with two-day action involving all in the LGPS early in April, and further and longer strikes soon after.
The key union leaders will not want all-out confrontation with the government just before the English council elections.
Activists must press now for an active strike on 28 March including big pickets and marches, followed by escalating action.
The government has launched a wholly fake “consultation” in order to claim that it is listening over pensions. It has declared 18 March to be National Pensions Day. In what it claims will be “the largest event of its kind ever undertaken in Britain, over 1,000 members of the public will be invited to simultaneous, satellite-linked, events”.
Note, that’s invited. Don’t turn up if you’re an angry trade unionist, or have had your pension stolen when your company went under, or are one of the two million pensioners living below the official poverty line.
The other leg of the “consultation” is an online form you can fill in—and be ignored if they don’t like it.
The real voice will be heard in the LGPS strike and in events such as those organised by the National Pensioners Convention. It has a series of events and rallies:
The RMT, Aslef and the TSSA rail unions are backing a major campaign to safeguard workers’ retirement benefits – and it could lead to major strikes.
The unions are calling on rail employers to cap employees’ contributions at 10.56 percent of wages, keep benefits at their current level, streamline the present schemes (presently there are over 100) and open the schemes to all employees.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said some workers would face contributions of 21 percent of their salary when legal changes to schemes were introduced in July. He said the clock was ticking towards industrial action this summer.
At present workers in three train operating companies pay less than 10.56 percent towards pensions. It is important they are not financially worse off if the new level of contributions is agreed. The first three meetings for the campaign are:
For more go to www.rmt.org.uk
For more on pensions see Firefighters’ pensions
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