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Letter: Throwing in the towel, trade union style

A healthcare worker writes about the recent pensions ‘sell out’, with the union capitulating to pension cuts.

It was less than three weeks following the Trade Union Congress’ (TUC) much-vaunted ‘day of action’ against the assault on public sector pensions when we heard the news that some of the unions had reached initial agreement with the Government on the proposed changes.

TUC General Secretary Brendon Barber appeared on national media crowing that the action at the end of November had brought ‘a new atmosphere’ to the negotiations and that in the local government and health sectors there was ‘a strong sense that some real progress has been made’. Although Barber was keen to stress that ‘at this stage, no agreements have been reached’ it was clear that this statement signaled the leaders of the major unions scurrying to the heel of the establishment.

True to form, public services union UNISON behaved in an appalling Stalinist fashion, giving its branches only a few days to consult with their membership in relation to the proposed ‘heads of agreement’. The published opinion accompanying this consultation was about as balanced as a cup tie between Barcelona and Northampton Town.

The proposed deal, which in reality amounts to little more than a handful of concessions designed to divide those affected by the changes, was presented in such a way that left you with the impression that a great victory had been won and all that was required was a rubber seal. Who on earth could possibly oppose this?
The ‘executive committees’ of the union, liberally populated by individuals more concerned with their next conference expenses claim than any serious organising, didn’t bother to find out by asking its membership. Instead, in a manner befitting of a scene from the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, they agreed with each other that this really was as much as we could hope for and we should be thankful to have a pension (or a job) at all.

The surrender of branches to this propaganda was greeted enthusiastically by regional officers, heralding ‘a green light’ for negotiating the finer details of their capitulation. Any opposition was dismissed as external political interference and the union’s executive officers skipped off to sell out its membership yet again, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t their own pensions at risk. Union reps were left having to explain to a bewildered membership that the union had done a deal without even bothering to ask them properly.

Now, we’ve been here many a time before and rather than endlessly slate the unions for selling us out and lobbying for a change of policy we should look to the fundamentally undemocratic nature and structures of the social democratic unions.

The power lies far away from the workers and this severely dilutes militancy and enables the politics of social partnership. ‘Let’s all make sacrifices in the interests of Great Britain PLC!’ they cry. Yet again we’ve been reminded that the hands on the levers of power may be few but they are manipulative and without organisations directly controlled by the workers charged to resist them they can feed, co-opt and satisfy their supposed opponents with ease. ‘Sell outs’ like this are inevitable so long as we don’t take matters into our own hands.

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