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Stop the sellout – lessons from the pensions struggle

THE TUC and right wing union leaders have moved swiftly to break up the magnificent united front of two million public sector workers, who took coordinated strike action on 30 November last year.

In fact, it took them just over two weeks to undo the work of tens of thousands of activists and workplace reps, who campaigned tirelessly to shut down schools and colleges, operating theatres and ports, council depots and libraries.

On 15 December the TUC’s Public Sector Liaison Group met and a plan was hatched to sign up to the government’s “heads of agreement” deal. The following day, the chief negotiators for Unite, Unison and the GMB circulated a letter to local government reps, saying that, although details could not yet be circulated, the deal “lay a positive framework for negotiations, starting in January”.

On the 19th, TUC chief Brendan Barber addressed the cameras outside the Congress House after a frantic day of negotiations, saying, “a new atmosphere” existed in the talks, with “some real progress in local government and health on key points and key principles”. The millionaire papers’ headlines ran: “Government close to pensions deal” and “Union signs NHS pension reform pact”.

Unison announced that strikes were suspended. Even Christine Blower of the NUT said, “There had been some movement”.

Rotten deal, rotten leaders

It soon emerged that the talks had produced virtually no movement whatsoever.
• Workers will have to pay more in contributions, about 50% more or 3% of their gross pay.
• Workers will have to work longer before they can retire, at 67 for those under 51 years old and 68 from those under 34.
• Workers will get less with pensions pegged to the lower CPI rate of inflation and based on career average salaries (this will particularly hit women hardest).

The concessions were tiny. Healthworkers earning under £26,000 would have a year’s grace before the doubling of their contributions kicked in; council workers were afforded a two year delay. Some improvements to the accrual rate was granted and workers within 10 years of retirement would not be touched.
But no new money was on offer, so we would pay for these “concessions” further down the line. Even worse, many union leaders rushed to throw away their major weapon: the mass, coordinated strike. Christina McAnea, Unison’s head of health, told viewers on Channel 4, that the strike had only been a ‘damage-limitation exercise’.

Of course the millions who took action last November thought they were striking to save their pensions. As Mark Serwotka said to an activists’ gathering in the New Year, “I don’t remember anyone saying in November we were going to the barricades over accrual rates.”

Of course not – all these concessions were on the table before the 30 November strike. When Treasury minister Danny Alexander first made them on 3 November, they were dismissed by one and all as too little, too late, and the strike went ahead.

As we go to press, Unison local government leaders have signed up to the deal, while its health group executive is balloting its members (while of course suspending all action). The GMB has thrown in the towel as well. Some moderate unions, like the ATL and Prospect have also signed up.

The one bright light is that Unite’s elected executives have overturned their unelected fulltimers and thrown out the deal. This shows that it is possible to reverse these setbacks – if we can pile pressure on the executives or, as activists are attempting in Unison, delegate conferences can be recalled.

While union officials tell members that any final agreement will go to a full membership ballot before agreement is reached, this democratic figleaf obscures the fact that, until then, they are kept in the dark, their strikes are suspended and unity shattered. Overall, considerable damage has been done to the cause.

What about the lefts?
But there is a left wing in the TUC. These leaders have not fallen at the first hurdle. They refused to sign up to the “heads of agreement” offer or to suspend further strike action.

But as we go to press, only the lecturers’ UCU – which started the pensions revolt with a strike on 29-30 March 2011 – has named a day for the next strike. Their NEC has called a strike for 1 March. But even here, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt is desperate to overturn the NEC decision.

As for the other rejectionist unions, especially PCS, NUT, NASUWT and Unite, none of them have set a date for further strike action. Initially there was talk of a strike before the schools broke up for half-term on 10 February, but this soon faded.

This is a serious mistake. After all, unions still representing over 1 million public sector workers could keep the momentum going – and by so doing pile the pressure onto Unison and GMB to withdraw their support for the agreement and rejoin the fight. By taking a “pause”, as PCS leader Mark Serwotka has called it, that momentum will be broken Serwotka told a left conference in January:

“If there are less people in the coalition, you have to do more… The heads of the unions rejecting the deal need to meet – I’d rather go slower, but get the strategy right.”

But what is this strategy? For the past decade, the PCS leadership and the Socialist Party, which is very influential in it, have refused to call strikes of more than one or at most two days duration. And it has proved disastrous. Tens of thousands of job losses, real pay cuts, privatisation and office closures have followed.

Another possible strategy is to mount a series of sectional or rolling strikes – also known as “smart strikes”. The aim is to keep the dispute constantly in the public eye and the members’ minds. Days of all-out action are interspersed with longer strikes by different sections of workers (usually those involved in revenue collection or with a high public profile) or in different parts of the country. A levy of the non-striking membership would raise strike pay to sustain those taking action.

This strategy was most recently used by Southampton City Council unions, which have been fighting pay cuts of up to 5 per cent for a year now. But despite thousands of workers taking tens of thousands of days of action, the council has not budged and the pay cut has been implemented.
Like one day strikes, rolling and selective action is only useful if they escalate sharply towards an all-out strike.

General strike

Workers Power has long warned that the union right wing and Prentis in particular would move to sell out the strike as soon as he could. Sure, unions were right to co-ordinate action against the great pensions robbery, but this never could be a substitute for a general strike to defeat all the cuts and break the coalition.

Public sector pensions was always too narrow a political base for the kind of fightback we need. Yes, it has proved useful in pulling together 30 trade unions to launch the biggest strike since 1926. But the working class as a whole is facing a whole series of austerity measures:
• 2.68 million unemployed with job cuts in financial services, manufacturing, retail and the public sector
• Welfare cuts from the abolition of the EMA for further education students to the devaluation of pensions, from the cap on benefits available to large families to the removal of Employment Support for hundreds of thousands of disabled people
• Average salaries rose by 0.5 per cent in 2010, while inflation hovered around 5 per cent: a real pay cut of 4.5 per cent. Further pay cuts are expected across the board
• The state school system and NHS are being broken up into thousands of competing units. Big business is poised to profit while universal services are being destroyed.

Meanwhile anger at the bankers remains at historically high levels and the economy is back going into recession. If the trade union leaders called a general strike against the coalition government’s whole cuts package, they could mobilise not only the other public sector unions, like the RMT, CWU and FBU, but also private sector workers, coming into struggle. Millions of young people, service users and unemployed would also see this as their opportunity to fight back.

To achieve this, we need to do two things:
• Build local committees of action to cement the united front from below, so that we can coordinate strikes, demos and occupations, and resist any attempt to splinter the fightback by the bureaucratic union leaders.
• Organise a network of rank and file organisations, based in the workplaces, in the unions and in the different sectors, which can mobilise for action with the union leaders where possible, but without them when necessary.

If the pensions revolt fizzles out and millions of workers go down to defeat in the first big test of strength against the government, it will undoubtedly be a real blow to the whole movement. But this is by no means the inevitable outcome. There is everything is still to play for.

• All out with the lecturers on 1 March
• Stop the sell out in Unison and the GMB – demand recall conferences to put the strikes back on
• Escalate the action – to two or three days, then an indefinite strike if the Tories do not back down
• For rank and file control of negotiations and the action, for local committees of action to unite the struggles from below
• Forward to a general strike to smash the cuts agenda and bring the government down.

Why do union leaders betray?

Thousands of workers are asking why their leaders have betrayed them. Even Unison members traditionally loyal to the Dave Prentis leadership, like Manchester local government branch, have denounced the sell-out and angrily rebuked their leaders. So why did the big union leaders betray their members and how have they (so far) got away with it?

Leaders like Barber, Prentis and the GMB’s Paul Kenny have an agreed and worked out political ideology. They support the Labour Party. Indeed, for them the Labour Party is the only vehicle to bring about change in society and elections the only road down which that change can be arrived.
The trade unions should restrict themselves to piecemeal struggle over contracts, wages and the terms of our exploitation, within the framework of the currently existing capitalist conditions. To venture outside this framework would risk, they argue, pitting organised labour against the democratically elected government of the day, and can only end in the unions becoming isolated, reviled and broken.

But the capitalist crisis has posed a real problem for these leaders. They have to be seen to do something for workers, who are being pummelled by a combination punch: massive job losses, real wage cuts, privatisation and pensions robbery. If they simply sat on their hands and declared nothing could be done, they would be thrown out of office when union elections came round.

What Barber, Prentis and co. fear more than anything is that the pensions struggle turns into a head-on struggle with the government. For them, it was always meant to be a “damage limitation exercise”.

After all, they do not face the uncertain future of the average civil servant or council worker, eking out their retirement on £4,000 a year – their pensions really are gold-plated. Derek Simpson, for example, received £361,000 when he retired as general secretary of Unite.

All in it together?

Marxists call the trade union leaders a bureaucratic caste. This is because they have interests separate from the membership and enjoy a lifestyle closer to that of the bosses than it is to the members’.

For them, trade unions exist to negotiate a compromise between the bosses and the workers. But in times of capitalist crisis, when the bosses’ system itself is in danger or their standing against other blocs of capital is at risk, then these brokers of labour for capital will always side with the bourgeoisie.

To underpin this system, capitalism has encouraged the development of a trade union bureaucracy with pay and perks that create a material basis for their role as capital’s labour lieutenants.

Just look at the pay packets of our leaders – all in this together?

General Secretary Salary Benefits
Sally Hunt (UCU) £98,238 £17,719
Paul Kenny (GMB) £87,000 £27,000
Dave Prentis (Unison) £97,327 £34,169
Mark Serwotka (PCS) £86,244 £27,110
Derek Simpson (Unite)* £97,027 £82,394
Chris Keates (NASUWT) £96,316 £28,720
Christine Blower (NUT) £94,374 £22,462
Mary Bousted (ATL) £108,300 £27,096

* Figures for Len McCluskey not yet released

How can we change this situation? We campaign for:
• All officials to be paid the average wage of the members they represent
• The regular election of all officials and right to recall them immediately should they sell out
• Elected strike committees to control all disputes,
negotiations and strikes.

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