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Pensions dispute: PCS union leaders betray struggle and call off strike

Civil Servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have voted overwhelmingly to reject pension cuts and to take further strike action, yet the union leadership today called off the 28 March strike writes Rebecca Anderson. The ballot result showed that over 90 per cent of respondents are unwilling to accept the government’s current offer and that over 70 per cent want to take further industrial action, starting with a strike on 28 March.The turnout wasn’t anything to crow about at thirty-two per cent, but the same turnout back in May led to the massive J30 strike where ninety-three per cent of members walked out over attacks on pensions, jobs and pay. Clearly the membership want to take on the government, so why don’t the leaders?

Instead of a national strike on 28 March they are now looking to organising another co-ordinated strike in April in the hope that the NUT conference will vote for further action. But by calling off this month’s coordinated strike, the PCS leaders have severely damaged the chances of the NUT lefts overturning their officers or of mobilising millions for a big battle in April.

The NEC of the National Union of Teachers last week called off their proposed national strike on 28 March (despite their members voting for it) in favour of regional action in London. The UCU today also announced that their members will only strike in London. The fact that so many other unions have either suspended all industrial action in favour of negotiations (like Unison) or backed down from a national strike on 28 March (NUT and UCU) does mean that PCS members are more isolated, that the unity of public sector workers has been broken, but it doesn’t mean that our leadership was right to retreat.

NUT members and members of other unions affected by the pension cuts are much more likely to vote for further action and reject the government’s proposals if we are continuing the fight. It’s a damned hard argument to win with people who stand to lose a day’s pay – but we stand to lose a day’s pay every month for the rest of our lives if we don’t save our pensions and 28 March would have been crucial to bringing the other unions back into that fight.

The right wing of the NUT will argue that Unison have backed out so it’s over, the left and right wings of PCS (including members of the Socialist Party – only the Socialist Workers Party’s three NEC members voted to go ahead with the strike) argued that we can’t go ahead without the NUT and UCU, and the Unison leadership will argue that there is no strike to join so members should accept the pensions deal. That logic goes round and round and has been doing so for a year now – from J30 to N30 to today’s terrible decision by the PCS NEC.

Of course if Unison members vote to reject the government’s proposals then their leadership may be forced to call further action. However, Unison members are more likely to reject the offer if other public sector workers are fighting to save their pensions. Indeed, the pensions changes will be implemented unilaterally in two weeks time, so many members will inevitably feel the deal is done – hardly the best starting point for a campaign relaunch.

A new strategy is needed. General Secretary Mark Serwotka said at the Left Unity Pensions Conference in December that if other unions start pulling out of the coalition then those remaining would need to consider “serious” strike action. This is exactly what we need now. The 28 March strike should go ahead and should escalate into April but we should not allow PCS members to fight alone and risk a Tory victory – these attacks still affect every public sector worker and if we all strike together then we can win much more easily.

How can we make this happen? Trade Union leaders follow an unwritten rule of not stepping on each other’s toes, but now is not the time for gentlemen’s agreements. We face terrible attacks from the government and must use every method at our disposal to fight back.

The PCS leadership are right to try and bring the rest of the public sector back out on strike, but have already tried doing it through back-room discussions with union leaders who are trying to force a terrible deal down their members’ throats and in December this strategy failed. The new strategy of keeping our fingers-crossed for the NUT conference and Unison ballot is far too risky. Instead the PCS leadership should make a public demand on the leader of the other unions to continue the fight.

Alongside this they need to appeal to the rest of the public sector workforce to hold their leaders to account: to vote “no” to the government’s proposals, to demand that the pensions strike starts up again immediately and to organise to do this without the consent of their leaders if no official strike is organised.

PCS also need to start holding their leaders to account – we just voted for action on 28 March and our leadership overturned that decision. Yes, the ballot did specify “with other unions” but that was inserted as a get-out-clause in case the other unions got cold feet. There is no room for cowardice in this fight – there is a danger that we might lose, but if we do nothing then we will win nothing and pay for it for the rest of our lives.

Mark Serwotka and other full-time union leaders and officials do not face the prospect of pension cuts and a pay freeze, let alone regional pay, they don’t earn an average of £23,000 a year, but PCS members do. If PCS members could decide whether to call on the other unions to strike then we would do it in an instant because our jobs, pay and pensions are on the line. Any sane strategist would see the battle over regional pay looming on the horizon and use the pensions dispute as a springboard for the fight to defend national pay bargaining. So where are our great and wise tacticians now?

We should decide whether to continue this fight and how, and the only way to do that is to organise to hold our leaders to account. We need a rank and file movement that can democratically control our unions, now more than ever: one that can fight for control of all disputes, one that can launch unofficial action when their leaders betray, one that can dissolve the bureaucracy that currently runs the union and replace it with elected and accountable leaders paid the average wage of those they represent.

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