Thousands of trade unionists took part in the TUC Day of Action on 18 February against the government’s latest attack on pensions. In over 50 towns and cities public sector workers in a range of unions demonstrated, rallied and lobbied Labour MPs against the biggest attack on public sector workers since the Second World War.
Inside the unions the feeling that there must be united strike action before the election has been voiced in some of the biggest union meetings seen for years. The chance to rebuild union organisation and the base of activists across the public sector is evident – Glasgow Unison’s recent AGM, for example, was quorate for the first time since 1996 largely due to the pensions issue.
The GMB, with over 200,000 members in the Local Government Pension Scheme, looks set to join other public sector unions in balloting at least some of its members for strike action on 23 March, after consultation with local officials. This brings the total that could strike on that day to around 1.5 million workers. Such action so close to a possible general election would provide another expression of the bitterness that many of Labour’s traditional supporters feel against Blair.
Already ballots are under way in the local government sections of Unison, Ucatt, the TGWU and Amicus, and in the PCS in the civil service. In Northern Ireland, Nipsa, which represents 40,000 workers in both local and national government, is balloting and even the First Division Association, which represents the highest ranks of the civil service, is considering industrial action.
We could see an even bigger day of action on 14 April with the education unions kicking off action in those sectors where the proposal to make workers stay for five more years is due to come into force in April 2006.
Nobody could have predicted that pensions would have become such a potent issue in British politics, even after the solid strike of around 200,000 civil service workers on job cuts and pensions in November 2004. However, in meeting after meeting it has become clear that many of the 5 million workers involved feel immense anger at the idea that one of the few benefits of working in the public sector, a decent retirement age, could come under attack from even this Labour government. The news that MPs have recently improved the benefits of their own scheme adds to the sense of injustice.
Events in the days running up to the TUC Day of Action show the pressure that union leaders will come under from Labour leaders to sacrifice their members’ pension provision. The days following Labour’s spring conference saw a series of talks in which Unison delayed the opening of their ballot for action for four days and very nearly called the ballot off entirely.
The fact that Prescott could not broker a deal that was acceptable to both the union leaders and New Labour is instructive and it is a testament to the pressure that union leaders are feeling from their memberships, and Blair’s determination to be ‘unremittingly New Labour’. It also means that a third term will not deliver even the meagre pledges that the union leaders claimed they had won in a meeting in Warwick last year unless the government is forced to.
It seems clear that the union leaders, and in particular Unison’s Dave Prentis, will continue to feel the pressure to reach some kind of settlement before 23 March. That Unison is only currently balloting over relatively minor changes due to come into effect this April could provide the space for a compromise that could halt action before May. This would be a setback for all those resisting these attacks – despite Blair’s best efforts, Iraq remains a nightmare for him and a second front would further weaken him.
Activists must continue to put the case that all public sector unions should strike against any worsening of pensions. This will put pressure on New Labour and make it hard for Prentis to do a deal that concedes key elements of the local government scheme. This makes it a priority for activists to ensure a high turnout and yes votes for action in the next few weeks. In areas not yet balloting, such as among health workers, indicative ballots can show the willingness for a fight.
In every area workers need to build on the links made on the TUC Day of Action to bring the unions together at a rank and file level.
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