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Trade unions with members in the Local Government Pension Scheme have to resist the rapacious threats they are facing...

Local government pensions ballot looms


Members of trade unions in the Local Government Pension Scheme will be balloting for industrial action from the first week in February. The ballot is primarily against the government's proposal to scrap the benefit of the "rule of 85", which allows employees over 60 to retire if their age and length of service added together amount to 85 or more (see Workers, January 2006).

Unison, the TGWU, the GMB, NAPO (probation officers), UCATT, Amicus, the FBU (subject to a Special Conference) and the CYWU are coordinating their ballots and will also look to deliver coordinated industrial action in the weeks prior to the local elections in May. What that action will consist of, bar an initial opening co-ordinated national strike, has yet to be determined.

The Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) embraces workers in local government, criminal justice, privatised utilities, the environment agency and privatised public services such as housing.

Unholy alliance
Trade union negotiators are facing an unholy alliance of civil servants acting for the government, employers and the Local Government Association, which is dominated by Tories. While the government would probably be pleased to avoid a confrontation, by coming to a compromise agreement similar to that made with teachers and health workers, the Local Government Association and the Tories would make huge political capital out of such a climbdown. The government side is also handicapped by John Prescott's frequent absence from negotiations and the inability of lesser ministers to engage with the complexities of the issue.

The agreement reached with health workers, teachers and civil servants will result in at best a two-tier pension scheme because only current members will remain protected until 60. However, all those schemes are up for renegotiation and could be off the table in the near future – something most union members in these sectors have not been told. For the other unions to campaign for a comparable settlement would be to accept a worse position than existing terms.

Union leaders appear to lack confidence in their unions' ability to see off government attacks. There could be various reasons for this. There has been a general decline in union membership and in the number of members who fall under the LGPS. Many seem to have accepted government and employer propaganda that there is a pensions crisis, not understanding that it has been manufactured on purpose to cut pay.

Levels of unity
There are also worries about the level of unity that can be sustained between the various public sector unions. Perhaps more worryingly, there are fears about the impact of action on the unions, their members and the embarrassment that could be inflicted on the Labour government.

The government is itself an absentee landlord when it comes to taking responsibility. The trade union war coffers are near empty. Unison, which has donated the most to Labour, must be ruing the day it handed over its money, especially as more than 850,000 of its members face a damaging loss from the government's position.

There is no clear voice about how the dispute will be run – bar the usual ultra left all-out indefinite strike mantra. There is no confidence that the dispute can be won or indeed, what would constitute an acceptable package. Local government trade union tactics over much of the last ten years have given the government a free hand to attack trade union organisation and local democracy all in the name of its modernisation agenda.

Slow motion
Trade unions with members in the LGPS have to resist the rapacious threats they are facing. The Warwick agreement struck between government and unions in July 2004 was designed to win Labour a third term in office, but is now worthless as a shield against government attacks. Watching a slow motion re-run of the troop trains edging towards one another like another dreadful August 1914 is a recipe for tactical bankruptcy.

We have buried our heads in the sand – ignoring the European Union Directive of May 2002, which initiated these pension proposals, and the government's Finance Act of 2004, which legislated for them. We cannot afford to fail to mobilise members against them over the next few weeks.