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Public sector pensions – trade dispute or class war?

Is the struggle over pensions limited to an economic issue, or is it a political fight, asks Jeremy Dewar

THE TORIES and the bosses are seriously worried about the coordinated strike on 30 November. Education Secretary Michael Gove and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude have been at the forefront of those calling for an army of scabs to run schools, and for new anti-union legislation to make it even more difficult for workers to take strike action.
Last year the Daily Mail reported that “a unit has been set up in the Cabinet Office to prevent Britain grinding to a standstill in the event of mass public sector walkouts. Officials have conducted ‘war games’ to ensure that strikebreakers are available to run vital facilities”.
This shows that our enemies are more prepared for the coming showdown than we are. They instinctively know that the 30 November strike – N30 – will not only bring the country to a standstill for a day, but also give millions of workers and youth a glimpse of their potential power. They will see who really makes society tick, which class is truly indispensible, without whom nothing works.
This is the real threat posed by the coming strike. And this is why David Cameron and the rest are scared stiff by it.

TUC on the back foot
But the TUC and union leaders are in danger of frittering away our advantages. First there was virtually no resistance to the coalition’s attacks for a whole year – despite half a million hitting the streets on 26 March. When they did mount a mass strike on 30 June, they failed to follow it up for five months. And even now, there are no plans for what to do after 30 November.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber entered into secret talks with Chancellor George Osborne in September without letting any union members know what he offered him. Now he and Unison leader Dave Prentis say the minor concessions offered by Danny Alexander could form the basis of a settlement. All union leaders agree this should strictly remain a trade dispute, to be settled scheme by scheme.
This approach is disastrous. It has already led to the FBU settling separately and pulling out of the strike. The powerful RMT union has kept out of the dispute allyear because its members’ pensions are not currently under attack. And private sector workers have had their pensions raided by the bosses without so much as a fight.
Imagine if train and fire stations were closed on 30 November, if factories and supermarkets were shut down – the country would be at a standstill. These workers’ jobs, pay and pensions are not safe. If we lose this battle, they will immediately come into the firing line. This is the same old Tory tactic of the 1980s, taking on unions a few at a time until all are defeated: the “salami tactic”.
Worse, the government could break apart the current united front by offering temporary concessions to, say, local government workers simply in order to weaken our side. And right wing union leaders, like Dave Prentis of Unison and Gail Cartmail of Unite, seem to be begging for this by stating that future talks and further strike action will be held on a scheme-by-scheme basis.
The truth is the union leaders are frightened of the anti-union laws, which forbid political strikes. Not a single one of our leaders, left wing or right wing, has ever defied these undemocratic laws. But this cowardly approach has only encouraged bosses, like British Airways, to use them more boldly, judges to interpret them more outrageously and the Tories to introduce even more draconian laws.

Fighting to win
Against this doomed strategy, rank and file union militants and socialists need to fight for an alternative leadership and policy. Our starting point has to be that our class is facing a political attack, so our answer has to be political, too: a general strike. The question of the day, therefore, is how to get one.
In most towns, cities and boroughs, activists are clubbing together in joint strike committees to organise meetings, rallies and demos. In some areas, they are also organising picket lines and recruitment drives to make the strike solid. These bodies will gain more authority if they contain delegates from every union and workplace and spread into the private sector, among the unemployed and youth, linking up with anticuts committees.
We should not wait for the next day of action to be announced, but demand another mighty strike before Christmas – this time even bigger, involving private sector workers. If the Tories still do not abandon their proposals, then we should launch two, three or four day strikes, rapidly escalating to an indefinite stoppage. The momentum of stringing the strikes together will encourage new layers to get stuck in and start to panic and break up the bosses.
To cement our own unity, we need to link our demands and add new ones. Our side should refuse to settle scheme by scheme but demand a comprehensive settlement for all: no one goes back until everyone has won. But public service pensions are far too narrow an issue to unite the whole of the working class. We should demand the withdrawal of all the cuts. If this means defaulting on the national debt, then so be it. We didn’t cause this crisis and we shouldn’t have to pay for it.
All public sector unions should now join the fray, whether their pensions are under attack now or not. Leeds CWU branch recently passed a motion urging its executive to ballot nationally to join the pensions revolt. As Andy, a workplace rep, said, “Now is the time to fight, alongside other unions, not two years down the road and on our own.”

Rank and file
Finally, but crucially, this alternative strategy can only come to fruition if rank and file union members wrest control of the dispute from their current leaders. Joint strike committees can form the basis for a completely new kind of leadership in the unions, one directly accountable to the workplaces and capable of acting without recourse to cumbersome bureaucracies. By sending delegates from these local bodies to regional and national strike committees, they can appeal over the heads of the union leaders and call action without them when necessary.
Many will complain that this cannot be done, that time is too short and shopfloor organisation too weak. But the Occupy movement has provided us with a valuable lesson. If young people can build a militant movement, not only in the USA but globally, in just two months, without a shred of bureaucracy but by operating democratically affording full rights to minority opinions, then so can the workers. After all, we have membership lists and structures that we can build on. We have a cause to unite around. And we have the determination, energy and talents of millions to help us: we are the 99%, let’s do it!

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