By Martin Smith, SWP industrial organiser
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What went wrong in the pensions fight?

This article is over 9 years, 9 months old
The events of the past week could seriously derail the pensions fight.
Issue 2295

The events of the past week could seriously derail the pensions fight.

The decision of the PCS leadership to call off the 28 March national strike, and the NUT leadership’s decision to downgrade its action to just a London-wide strike, will leave many people confused, demoralised and angry.

The only people laughing will be the Tories. David Cameron will smell weakness.

They are charging ahead with more attacks—regional pay and privatisation of our roads and the NHS. Now we learn they have Royal Mail in their sights.

As sure as night turns to day, they will continue to make the poor pay for the crisis.

This fight was always about much more than pensions. It was a beacon for all those resisting the government.


There can be no blame laid at the door of rank and file union members for this debacle.

Last year when the TUC called its national demonstration against the cuts, hundreds of thousands marched.

When the PCS, NUT, UCU and ATL unions took the important step of calling the 30 June (J30) strikes, their members delivered thumping votes for action and a magnificent one-day strike.

This put massive pressure on Unite, Unison and the GMB to back 30 November (N30). Again members responded. Up to 2.6 million struck and close to a million took to the streets.

And in the recent consultation votes, union members delivered overwhelming backing for 28 March.

So what went wrong?

In the run up to J30 and N30 the left unions set the agenda. They pulled right wing union leaders behind their strategy.

But no sooner was the last picket sign taken down on N30 than TUC leader Brendan Barber and Unison leader Dave Prentis went into overdrive to scupper further action.

Their pessimism about the unions’ power, their acceptance that pensions would have to be cut and their blind loyalty to Labour meant that they had no stomach for the fight.

It was Unison and the GMB that undermined the fight in December when they signed the government’s “heads of agreement” pensions deal.

With the pace of the dispute being set by the least confident unions, it was now a case of the right wing union leaders pulling the left.

Unite’s Len McCluskey, who has spoken out brilliantly against the ravages of the Tories’ austerity plans, failed to follow up the success of N30.

In this situation the left unions had to stop the rot and push ahead with the strike. But instead they buckled under the pressure—and fell one by one like dominoes.

It began with the decision of NUT general secretary Christine Blower to oppose national action on 28 March. This decision flew in the face of a strong vote for national action by NUT members.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has played a magnificent role throughout the dispute. Without his intervention at key moments the strikes would not have happened.

However, we believe he was wrong to call on the PCS executive to pull the 28 March following the NUT’s decision.


The Socialist Workers Party has supporters on the NUT, PCS and UCU executives. We are proud that they voted to keep the action on. In the UCU, our members and other socialists played a key role in ensuring that their union voted to support a national strike.

We believe that a national strike by the PCS and UCU alongside action by the NUT in London would have put them in a much stronger position to push for wider action in April.

Unfortunately some on the hard left also buckled at this crucial time. Socialist Party comrades rightly voted to keep the action on in the NUT. But sadly in the PCS, where it has a majority, its members voted to call the action off.

We can’t be naive—it’s going to be very hard to get the action back on. But there is still a chance. We have to campaign hard to ensure that the NUT and UCU strike across London on 28 March.

UCU has made it clear that it will strike with any other union in April. PCS has agreed to approach other public sector unions to seek further action in April. And there will be a major debate about national action at NUT’s conference in Easter.

There’s no time to lose. Every one of us has to do all we can to get the pensions fight back on.

Resounding votes for action

The unions held votes on whether to strike again, and whether to accept or reject the Tories’ pensions deal. The results were:

PCS 72% to strike, 90% to reject
NUT 73% to strike, 95% to reject
EIS 74% to strike
UCU 60% to strike, 82% to reject
Unite health 94% to reject

Union members: decision is ‘a disgrace’

The executive committee of the teachers’ NUT union was the first to meet last week—the crunch week for the pensions dispute.

With a big vote for more action (see above), expectations were running high that it would call a national strike on 28 March.

But instead it only agreed a London strike. A proposal for the NUT to join a national one-day strike was defeated.

Many teachers were fuming at the decision. Ralph Dyson, a teacher in Rotherham, told Socialist Worker that teachers at his school were “as sick as seaside donkeys” about it.

“I couldn’t believe the outcome,” he added.

Carl, a teacher in Bolton, said, “I think it’s a disgrace. The NEC members have overruled the members.”

Chris Blakey, an NUT member in Oxfordshire, is one of 15 executive members who did vote in favour of holding a national strike on 28 March.

Chris said, “People I’ve spoken to are extremely disappointed with the executive’s decision.

“Even committee members in my union branch who are relatively conservative thought it was a scandal.”

Scottish teachers’ union EIS then followed its lead in calling off the strike it had planned for 28 March.

“The deciding factor in their decision may well have been the failure of the NUT to call a national strike,” said EIS council member Andrew Fullwood (pc).

“Failure to fight now when our contributions are due to increase shows a complete lack of determination to win.”

He called for activists to “bombard union headquarters with letters, emails and motions to show their disapproval of the decision”.

Next the UCU lecturers’ union executive met.

It voted to join the NUT’s London strike—and to join the PCS civil service workers’ union in a national strike if it called one.

But then the PCS executive this week voted not to call any strikes, instead deciding to try to organise more co-ordinated action with other unions in April.

“We already got members behind a strike,” said Dave Plummer, a revenue worker and PCS member in London. “They will be disappointed.

“We should have used 28 March as a springboard for more action in April.”

Ian Harvey, a PCS member in Plymouth, added, “I am disappointed. We’ve already lost a lot of momentum.”

NUT union branches are passing a model motion for more strikes. Download it at

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