By Sean Vernell
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 361

Time to escalate the fight

This article is over 10 years, 11 months old
The anger over pensions runs much deeper than this single issue. But some in the trade union movement have argued to keep the fight focused on this question alone.
Issue 361

They believe that workers, at the moment, are not interested in fighting a wider battle over privatisation and the defence of the welfare state. This is a mistake. The attacks on pensions act as a lightning conductor for the rage felt about the coalition’s attacks as a whole.

Many people who join the public sector do so because they believe that they can make a difference to society through the work they do. But the continual encroachment of the market over the last 30 years means they can’t do the jobs they want to do. Teachers can’t teach, social workers can’t care and health workers can’t heal. It is this that provides the backdrop to the rage over the issue of pensions.

What made the 30 June strike so successful was precisely that all those who took strike action and those who joined striking workers on their picket lines and demonstrations understood very well that the pensions fight is part of a wider battle. Failure to locate the pensions fight in the wider struggle to defend the welfare state will weaken the fight over pensions. A misunderstanding of what has shaped and drives the pensions campaign will lead to an inability to continue to motivate workers to fight and therefore fail to isolate the government.

The government’s main strategy to win the pensions battle is to try to divide and rule. They attempt to do this in two ways. The first is to stoke up divisions between public and private sector workers by saying that the cost of public sector pensions is putting private sector jobs and living standards at risk. We have to be clear in saying that there is not a crisis in public sector pensions.

The second way the government is trying to divide the movement is among public sector workers themselves. It is attempting to keep Unison, Unite and the GMB, which represent many low-paid public sector workers, from joining with the four unions that have already taken action. These four include among their members some of the better paid public sector workers – although very few in the case of the PCS.

Sections of the leadership of the bigger unions accept the heart of the government’s argument about the need to “reform” public sector pensions, although they disagree how this can best be done. They see their job as getting the best possible deal for the low paid even if it is at the expense of the higher-paid public sector workers. The danger is that the leaders of the big unions will accept a deal that screws the other unions in the vain hope that this will protect their own members.

In the 1970s a similar trick was used to break the back of the powerful industrial militancy that brought down the government of Edward Heath. It was argued that if the government froze the pay of the high-paid workers the money that was saved could go towards lifting the lower-paid workers up to the highest earners.

Many of the most organised and militant workers were disarmed by left wing trade union leaders putting forward seemingly left wing arguments about the need to help the low paid – especially women workers. Not surprisingly, rather than bringing low paid workers’ wages up it brought all wages down. The Labour government of 1974-9 oversaw the biggest cut in real wages seen since the Second World War.

The effect of disarming the leading militants in the organised working class meant the Labour government managed to break the back of the movement, which laid the basis for the employers’ offensive of the 1980s.

Today we will no doubt be faced with similar arguments attempting to divide low and higher-paid workers. We can expect to hear that it is the white, male, 60 year old teacher who holds down the pensions of the low-paid, black woman workers. We shouldn’t be fooled again. The argument around, for example, the defence of final salary schemes for teachers and lecturers is about the better-organised sections of the working class being able to defend themselves and by so doing helping the weakest. This is the best way of levelling upwards.

This means that under the banner of “Fair pensions for all”, located in a wider frame of the defence of the welfare state, we need to escalate the action now.

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