To understand the significance of the pensions dispute, we have to give it context. Pension provision for all workers in Britain is under sustained attack. Employers constantly announce that final-salary schemes are being closed and replaced by inferior money purchase schemes. Even these will be attacked when employers read the government’s Pensions White Paper.
So it was a brave but necessary step for the rail unions to launch their campaign in defence of railway pensions. The campaign united four unions making four demands: affordable contributions, maintaining benefit levels, keeping the Railway Pension Scheme open, and streamlining it. For a while it looked quite impressive, with nationwide public meetings and the lobby of parliament; but then the wheels started to come off the bandwagon.
The CSEU capitulated on a technicality. Perhaps we could shrug that off, but then came a real blow: ASLEF deserted the campaign without even a ballot.
ASLEF’s grounds were that the TOCs had agreed to their demands. For instance, in the National Express Group, ASLEF got an assurance that if the government agreed to have only one section of the pension scheme for TOCs, then NEG would not be opposed. The contributions part of their deal is only valid until the next actuarial report; if the stock market does not improve, management have pencilled in higher than 10.56% increases for a few years’ time. ASLEF interpreted the “no higher than 10.56%” demand to just mean in the short term, whereas what we should demand is contributions no greater than 10.56% forever.
This is not as implausible as it might seem. Recently the government wrote a guarantee of no employer contributions above 14% in the teachers’ new pension scheme. So we can demand no employee contributions above 10.56%!
ASLEF pulled out of the united front on the basis of secret deals for drivers only, showing once again that having a separate union in one grade weakens us all.
It was heartening to see TSSA at least try to join in, but their ballot went down to a No vote. This is what happens when you run for decades on the basis of never going on strike, and when loads of your members are managers.
No doubt RMT felt isolated as its three fellow rail unions dropped out one by one.
RMT’s strike ballot got a 76% Yes vote, but instead of carrying out the mandate and naming strikes, the union put the action on ice for the sake of a commission. At least the Executive foiled Bob Crow’s attempt to call it off before the ballot was even done!
The commission consists of an ‘independent’ chair, an employers’ representative and a union representative - who is not even from the rail unions, but is a TUC bureaucrat not accountable to us. Our unions will submit papers to the commission - that’s all.
The form is bad for this type of body: the government-appointed Turner Pension Commission recommended the national retirement age be raised to 68! And off the rails reckons there is no such thing as an ‘independent’ chair: he or she will represent no-one, and will back the bosses. In the unlikely event that this commission comes up with something decent, there is nothing to bind the employers to accept it.
RMT gave up our ballot mandate when we could have used it to hold strike action and go to the negotiating table with a more powerful voice.
Winning this dispute is going to take a lot of talking with over one hundred companies to deal with, but should we really expect anything to come of it before we take industrial action? For several months the rail unions requested talks with no success at all. What changed? The threat of strike action, that’s what. We can still achieve much more if we actually go on strike.
We need to concentrate the minds of the employers and the government. We should impose our own timetable on them, but the threat of strike action alone won’t do this. Talking is what these people do for a living, and you can be sure that their pension needs are abundantly provided for. To get their attention and keep it, we need a rolling program of strike action; nothing else will force them to make concessions.
The rallies during the late summer are welcome. Rank-and-file members need to speak up at these rallies to call for action.
The commission could take a while; during this time our pensions will continue to be eroded. We have no guarantee that deficits will be dealt with in a way that benefits members - we could end up in the same situation as now except the increases we have to pay will be that much bigger.
So we must revive this pensions fight!
ASLEF negotiated their way out of the pensions dispute on a company by company basis promising that any company not signing up would face industrial action. They threw away the strength of the aggregate ballot preferring instead to get what they could for some drivers and leaving the others to take their chances. Well GB Railfreight was one of those companies who didn't sign up because they wanted to close the pension scheme to new starters. ASLEF balloted its members in GBRf who voted against strike action. I'm not sure what this means. Possibly these drivers weren't interested in defending the rights of new starters or maybe they didn't see anyway of winning with a small workforce (68 returned ballot papers)? If the latter was true how much more ready to fight would they have been if the whole union and maybe even the other rail unions stood behind them?