Calling off pension strikes was wrong

Submitted by AWL on 1 April, 2005 - 6:03

Solidarity believes that the unions should have gone ahead with their strikes against pension cuts on 23 March and 26 April.

The threat of strikes in the immediate run-up to a General Election made Blair and Brown retreat on pensions. If we had gone ahead, we could have made them retreat further, and kept up the momentum of our campaign.

By calling off the strikes, the unions have missed an opportunity.

In a letter to TUC Secretary Brendan Barber, Work and Pensions Minister Alan Johnson says the Government will “make a fresh start on discussions with the trade unions”, and “in those talks all aspects of the Government’s proposals will be open to discussion and negotiation”.

Previously the Government had said that the changes in the Local Government Pension Scheme would take effect from 1 April, and, while there were negotiations in other sectors, its plans to increase the normal retirement age (in most areas from 60 to 65) was non-negotiable.

The Government has now promised that, after the General Election, it will repeal the regulations already passed through Parliament to cut local government pensions.

A real retreat by the Government. So why continue with action?

The Government has not dropped its proposals, least of all the central plan to increase the retirement age to 65. The battle has merely been postponed — to a time when the Government reasonably expects to be much less vulnerable. Yet the unions did not demand any definite concessions now. They did not even insist that negotiations be held before the General Election.

The unions have forgotten the lessons of the firefighters’ dispute. The repeated decisions by the firefighters’ leaders to call off strikes at the last minute, in return for a promise of negotiations, weakened the struggle. To treat working-class militancy as a tap to be switched on or off at short notice by the leaders is not clever tactics, but corrosive bureaucratism.

The decision to call off the strikes reflects the dismal lowering of horizons among union leaders over recent years. The offer of negotiations seemed such a great victory that they did not even ask for more.

One the PCS(civil service union) executive, Socialist Party, Scottish Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party members backed calling off the strike. In the National Union of Teachers, union president Mary Compton insisted that the circular from general secretary Steve Sinnott calling off the strike ballot should record her dissent. But the SP, the SWP, and groups like the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance have supported Sinnott’s move.
NUT leftists argued that the union would be “isolated” if it went ahead, because the civil service union PCS had called off action. In PCS, leftists argued that PCS would be “isolated” because NUT was not going to ballot. The argument is circular.

They say it would be “ultra-left” to continue with a strike if the Government had made real concessions. Why and how is it “ultra-left” to continue with strike action when the Government is vulnerable, rather then delaying until it is stronger?

The Socialist Party, in its habitual cautious housekeeper mode, praised the fact that “the unions have kept their powder dry”, as if the working class has only a finite amount of action-powder, and it must be kept carefully for an elusive future great day.

The SWP, through a Unison United Left Bulletin, struck the same note. As if to stress
that UUL/SWP had no complaint about action being called off, the bulletin approvingly quoted Jean Geldart, chair of Unison’s Local Government Service Group Executive: “We would have 1.5 million out on 23 March, and over 2 million on 26 April, but if we win this delay we will have the opportunity to unite all the public sector unions to fight together on pensions, that’s over 5 million workers”.

But the “strategy” of putting off bites of action today in favour of hoped-for but indefinite grand banquets tomorrow has never won anything for the working class.
The SWP and the SP know there is something wrong here. Socialist Worker has an entirely different line from the SWPers in high union positions. It says not only that the strikes should have gone ahead, but also (wildly exaggerating) that if they had gone ahead they would have secured immediate total victory.

In its paper, the SP says that it was wrong for NUT to call off its ballot, explaining that “the threat of action before a general election is still needed to ensure the government departments start genuine negotiations immediately”. But SPers in the PCS and NUT made no such argument. In fact the Government can now get negotiations free from any immediate threat of action.

The working class needs socialists who fight for an honest and consistent policy — not groups who have one message for the militant rank and file, and an opposite one for the union committee rooms, or (in the case of the SWP) for the union leaders whom they hope to soft-soap into backing “Respect”.

Workers have seen that the Government can be pushed back. If we build on that, we can win.
Activists should argue for the unions to push the negotiations hard — to avoid being strung along by the government — and to set definite timetables and trigger-points now for renewed action or new ballots.

Active unity between public sector workers must be stepped up. PCS has already called for local public sector alliances. They should be built, drawing in the widest range of public sector unions, and pensioners’ groups too.

Unity at local, rank-and-file level is necessary in order to ensure that collaboration at general secretary level does not mean slowing the campaign to the pace of the slowest general secretary.

Unison, unlike PCS and NUT, required no Executive vote to call off its strike because it had made smaller demands than the other unions. Unison made no specific demand about the substance of the pension cuts. Its ballot was in protest at the lack of proper consultation on the changes. Alan Johnson’s letter delivered everything Unison had been asking for and left it no basis for a strike.

Unison activists need to argue for the union to join with other unions around common demands, which include, as a minimum, defence of existing pension rights and the existing pension age. And they need to bring Unison health workers into the campaign.

And instead of being defensive, the unions should fight for a programme to win decent occupational and state pensions.

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