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Where next in the fight to save our pensions?

Tower Hamlets Unison has called an unofficial conference on pensions

Jeremy Dewar monthly industrial overview updates us on the pensions dispute

THERE HAS been mixed news about the public service workers’ pensions dispute over the summer. On the positive side, civil service union PCS and the education unions, NUT, ATL and UCU, have remained united and determined to defend their pension schemes, encouraged by the magnificent 30 June strike.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka called for “maximum unity in the face of a government that has lost the nation’s trust”. Mary Bousted, Christine Blower and Sally Hunt, leaders of the ATL, NUT and UCU, issued a joint statement saying they will “with regret, need to consider taking further industrial action in November.”

United front divided
However, Unison’s Dave Prentis said: “individual unions will be actively considering participating in scheme level talks… to reach a judgment on whether agreement is possible or whether they will enter into dispute and plan industrial action,” adding that the timetable “has been extended to October”.

Millions of workers saw 30 June as the first shot in a campaign to unite all our struggles against the government’s austerity programme. Many thought the next logical step would be a public sector strike drawing in NHS and local government workers. The most far-sighted, including this newspaper, realised that an indefinite general strike will be needed to stop the government’s austerity plans.

But the TUC strategy means no further strikes till November at the earliest. Scheme-based talks will inevitably all be at different stages in the autumn and this will undoubtedly be used as an excuse to block united action.

Take the NHS for example. Unison, the majority union with 460,000 members, says failure in talks is “almost inevitable”. Increasing members’ contributions and raising the retirement age are the sticking points. Unison, Unite and GMB are due to meet the BMA and RCN to discuss “possible future industrial action”.

So will this lead to co-ordinated strike action with teachers and civil servants? Unlikely. Unite and Unison are proposing the “Southampton strategy” of “smart strikes”, taking out a few sections at a time.  Southampton council workers have shown resilience, self-sacrifice and courage during three months of strikes. But they are no nearer winning than when they started in May. In fact they are farther away, having all signed (on the unions’ advice) contracts agreeing to a 4.6 per cent pay cuts. Now they face the threat of mass sackings.

This is not “smart”. The real alternative is to bring all the members out at once – and to stay out until we have all won. But even the left leaders do not have the guts to fight for this – which is why rank and file members must take the lead.

Now I am told that union negotiators are edging towards recommending a deal over the local government pension scheme. But they are simply focusing on the question of increased contributions, leaving aside the potentially devastating closure of final salary schemes, the change from RPI to the lower and less accurate CPI inflation link and the raising of the retirement age.

Local authority bosses can afford to chip away at our rights bit by bit; after all the scheme is fully funded with £140 billion of assets. Everyone knows the real risk would come if members’ contributions were doubled in one go – then tens of thousands may leave and the whole scheme could collapse. Better to let rates creep up.

Scared by the prospect of millions striking together, the coalition is playing divide and rule. But what will happen a few years down the line, if the teachers and health workers go down to defeat? The billionaire press and the millionaire government will vilify “privileged” council workers with their “gold plated” pensions and attack again. Remember: this is how the 2006 settlement was unpicked.

Rank and file conference
Camden and Tower Hamlets Unison branches have called “a branch-based conference, official or unofficial, to debate what is increasingly looking like a far, far worse pensions sell-out than witnessed in 2005-07”. I’ve heard 24 September is the possible date. A number of branches have backed this excellent initiative. Such a bold move could succeed because it could tap into the anger felt by hundreds of thousands of members and the hope raised by the 30 June strikes. But it needs to draw in more than just Unison council branches and reach out to NHS, civil service and education branches, as well as firefighters and railworkers, who are both moving into dispute.

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