By a Unison member
As Solidarity goes to press, union plans for action over the Government’s plans to cut public sector pensions are in flux.
The civil service union PCS and the local government unions, mainly Unison, were due to strike on 23 March. On 14 February the college lecturers’ union NATFHE announced it would ballot its members for a strike on 14 April, which could be joint action with the school teachers’ union NUT and Unison members in education. The NUT is conducting an “indicative” ballot, area by area, on what action its members want to take on pensions. This is likely to lead to strikes in the stronger areas.
Meanwhile, however, Unison has delayed sending out its ballot papers for a strike on 23 March; and it may suspend the ballot on the promise of further talks with John Prescott which may, just may, result in longer consultation on the local government pension changes, due to be introduced this April.
PCS is now, so we understand, discussing postponing its strike from 23 March until 14 April, when it can come together with education workers.
That Prescott is willing to keep talking, when last week the Government was adamant that there would be no negotiations, is proof that industrial action — or even the threat of industrial action — works.
But as far as we know so far, Prescott has not even offered a definite postponement, let alone any substantive concession.
His talks may be a ploy to stave off confrontation with the unions until after the General Election. Or even a smokescreen, with talks long enough to get the strike ballot finally called off, only for the talks then to break down leaving the union unable to call action until after the pension cutbacks are introduced on 1 April.
Unison has let the talking go on way too long, threatening action only at the very last minute before the local government pension cutbacks come in to force. It has also failed to unite different groups of public sector workers behind a single strategy and a single demand against the Government’s concerted, across-the-board attack on public sector pensions.
Whereas teachers, civil servants, lecturers and others are balloting on action against the proposals themselves (increasing retirement ages, cutting pension levels, sometimes increasing workers’ contributions), Unison has lodged a dispute only about the lack of consultation. In other words, if Prescott does agree to further talks, the dispute is over, officially won, but with all of the threats to council workers’ pensions still in place.
It is possible that by the time Solidarity is printed Prescott will have called Unison's bluff, and refused to postpone the changes to the pension scheme. In which case, Unison may re-instate the ballot, and the 23 March strike will continue as planned.
But the danger is that talks will take us past the General Election to a point where the Government no longer feels vulnerable, and is more willing to be seen being tough on public sector strikers — and then the Government will be able to pick off groups of public sector workers one by one, with no concerted response. Meanwhile workers previously keen to fight back get demoralised and demobilised by the Grand Old Duke of York stunts.
Instead of just demanding consultation, Unison’s local government service group should be registering a dispute over the substantive issues at stake. That would provide the basis for Unison in local government to be balloting for action on the same basis as the education and civil service unions, and in time, if not for 23 March, at least for 14 April.
Such an approach would also enable Unison to set a deadline to the talks with Prescott. The Deputy Prime Minister showed in 2002-2003 with the Fire Brigades Union how he could use lengthy and ultimately worthless talks to frustrate a union’s campaign, and it is entirely possible he is doing the same thing now. Unison should issue a firm deadline by which all the government proposals for attacks on public sector pensions must be off the table, or else there will be a new ballot for strike action. Such a strategy would also allow for other sections of Unison, notably health workers, to come into line with the council workers.