Pensions: make unions commit to action now!

Submitted by Matthew on 1 February, 2012 - 2:21

Unions which have not accepted the Government’s so-called “final” formula for public sector pensions are talking about a further strike on the issue in late March, and more action beyond that.

But activists in those unions, and especially in the officially “left-wing” unions, will have to fight hard:

• to make sure the further strike happens;

• that it is energetically organised, and not just a limp token protest;

• and that “more action” means a genuine ongoing campaign of rolling and selective action, with activity every week, rather than advice to workers to wait after the one-day protest on a promise that union leaders may in some weeks' or months' time proclaim new activities.

The “rejectionist” unions met on 25 January. That was slow — PCS, the main union to reject the Government formula immediately and clearly, had been talking about a meeting since 20 December — but it was progress.

A lot of unions attended, most sending general secretaries. That's good, but it had a downside. Unions which might otherwise have taken an initiative are now inclined to wait for a hypothetical great day when all the “rejectionist” unions, or a lot of them, concur on action; and, if we leave things to the general secretaries, that great day may never come.

The 25 January meeting decided no action, and made no public statement. The “rejectionist” unions will meet again (8 February, we believe), and there is a vague agreement that the next meeting will talk about a strike in late March.

Despite the time lost since 19 December, much more is still possible. The moves by Unilever and Shell to scrap two of the last defined-benefit pension schemes in the private sector, as soon as it became clear that many of the public-sector unions were folding, have dramatised the issues, and the Unilever workers' fightback will have encouraged many public-sector workers.

Activists in every union should press for:

• clear rejection of the 19 December formula;

• taking the initiative to name the date for a further strike;

• an ongoing campaign of rolling and selective action, with activity every week, financed by strike levies;

• a priority for specific demands which could be won even at this stage, such as widening the range of pay levels exempt from contribution rises and extending the time of the exemption, or drastically reducing the loss of pension which workers retiring earlier than the increased full pension ages will suffer.

Such specific demands do not cut across escalating to full demolition of the Government plans, or indeed for a levelling-up improvement of current pension terms, if the continuing campaign develops solidly; but they are probably necessary to restart the campaign at this late stage.