Workers across the public sector were set to strike on March 23rd to defend pension rights but the strike was called off when a deal was done with the government. The same attacks on pension schemes are due to be implemented in April 2006, and John Prescott is already under pressure to renege on the deal. Only effective strike action will defeat these attacks and workers have to be ready to take it.
Local government bosses still intend to raise the minimum retirement age from 50 to 55, as well as the age at which the full pension is payable from 60 to 65. If they get away with that then another set of cost-cutting measures such as average salary, as opposed to final salary, pensions and higher employee contributions will be brought in.
Increased life expectancy?
This is “justified” on the grounds that average life expectancy has increased but it isn't that simple. The truth is more to do with the “pensions holidays” taken by the bosses, where they have not paid their share of the money into pension funds, leaving a shortfall. TGWU boss Jack Dromey blamed the Tories for cutting pension funding “to smooth the move from poll tax to council tax” in the early ‘90s but Labour hasn't made up the deficit.
In any case, average life expectancy and the life expectancy of working class people are not the same. Since 1974 life expectancy at 65 for men has increased by more than 4 years and for women by more than 3 years, but over the equivalent period for a male caretaker the increase was only a year-and-a-half and for a female hospital cleaner there was no increase at all. What's more, the longer you work the shorter your life expectancy.
The only problem with final salary pensions is that these discourage people from going parttime towards the end of their working lives. This is a particular issue for teachers but it applies across the board. Sorting this out would actually cut the need for early retirement and allow services to retain experienced workers for longer. Since the “unfairness” of final salary pensions is one of the bosses' justifications for wanting to scrap them they would extract a high price for concessions - unless they were under considerable pressure from industrial action.
Back in March UNISON hailed a victory when John Prescott agreed to scrap regulations decreeing an increase in the minimum age at which workers in local government can claim their full occupational pension. As well as crediting this “victory” to Dave Prentis, then seeking reelection as General Secretary, the union highlighted lobbying by sponsored Labour MPs, rather than the threat of strike action, as the key factor in the turnaround.
It is difficult to take this at face value. First of all, the only promise from the government was of negotiations – no guarantee was given that they wouldn't force through the same changes if the unions didn't agree to them. Secondly, in the run up to an election the political impact of strike action on a Labour government would have been greater. Consequently, the issue will be revisited with workers in a weaker bargaining position. Thirdly, there is no doubt that it was the threat of strike action, not lobbying MPs, which forced Prescott to back down. Prentis has actually saved the government from itself.
UNISON's National Local Government Conference first voted for a ballot on industrial action over pensions in June 2004, and the issue was then pursued via Labour Link until December before finally deciding to proceed with the ballot. Meanwhile, the civil service union PCS – less loyal to the Labour Party leadership – had planned strike action all along. Prentis only elbowed his way to “leadership” of the strike at the last minute. Some civil service workers are understandably suspicious of his role.
Organise for strike action
We need to organise, and to start now. The real issues and the need for strike action have to be understood in every workplace. Meetings need to be held, especially in poorly organised sections. Rank and file action committees need to be set up and links have to be made between civil service, local government, health and education workers so that it will be harder for the government to pick us off one at a time. Finally, in the light of UNISON's behaviour the issue has to be linked to breaking the stranglehold the Labour Party has on the unions.