If the resistance to the government’s plans for public sector pensions is to thrive, it must be based on what each section of workers wants and their ability to wage a protracted war based on their own needs and strengths. It is not, and never was, about one solution for everyone...
The goal of the two million strong 30 November strike was to get the government to enter into meaningful negotiations and discussions over public sector pensions. It made its point strongly, showing that passions about the pensions issue run high across a huge swathe of public services. Now, negotiations affecting the major schemes – teachers, civil servants, local government workers, health workers – plus the smaller specialised schemes, are in the offing, especially in health and local government.
30 November showed powerfully what unites us. It always had to be followed by a more guerrilla and protracted approach, where the various sections involved in the numerous (and different) pensions schemes fight on their own ground. And that is just what is happening. There is no cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth because it's where we should be. The relative strength or weakness of each sector is becoming apparent and will be further exposed. Each must fight according to its strength.
Unison and the GMB, whose members comprised over 1.25 million of those who struck, have accepted a Heads of Agreement framework for negotiation. Both unions have agreed that there will be no further action until those negotiations are concluded, and until an offer, if one emerges, is put to their members. The mandate for industrial action remains live but is parked for the moment.
Other unions are undecided or do not believe that the Heads of Agreement provides any framework for negotiation. Some posture, saying it is better to have an imposed and far worse deal than try to steer the government in another direction. Some clamour for neither peace nor war, neither advance or retreat but just mouth slogans as though chanting a mantra will fix the situation.
Strength and weakness
So far the pensions dispute has been a set piece cul-de-sac battle selected by the government on their terms, but it is not over. The trade unions have struggled to find initiatives or tactical ingenuity to come up with differing options on action they could deliver. In local government the plain fact is that historic areas of strength, which in the past were used for selective action, are now removed from the trade dispute. Vast swathes of the public sector have been outsourced and privatised – hence removing those workers from the dispute.
A Royal College of Nursing banner proudly on display in Sheffield during the 30 November strike. The involvement of non-TUC unions such as the RCN and the British Medical Association will be crucial to the fight for pensions in health.
Others have seen union density eroded because the hard work of recruiting and sustaining union workplace organisation was ignored during the years of the last Labour government. Easier to pursue the soft win victories of legislation aimed at equalities and legal redress than to battle day in day out to win over workers’ minds. Easier to play at merger games, promoting business and managerial unionism, rather than organise the workplaces.
The sheer difficulty of running a legal ballot and holding a legal trade dispute permeates every trade union, leading to paralysis. For every organiser, negotiator, or strategist at the table there are a several lawyers present and “advising”.
There are those in the unions who are intent on engineering a split between the unions over an ultra-left agenda, opposed by those who are tactically astute enough not to be walked into a trap set by the Coalition. There are those who think sloganising replaces organisation and thought-through strategies aimed to win. These strategies begin with the defeat of the worst excesses being proposed and including knowing when to retreat in order to be ready to fight another day.
Some cynically see the dispute as an exercise to merge unions, e.g. Unite and PCS, to promote the sectarian and failed politics of the ultra-left. Such a merger would have no workplace root or strategic value to the working class: it would simply feed personality, ego and delusions of power. Those who preach so-called unity, refuse to consult the membership, fail to work to bring non-TUC trade unions such as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing into our ranks, and clamour for another joint strike date, are the real voices of division and defeat.
The negotiations over the schemes will produce differing outcomes and differing possibilities. But this is the nature of guerrilla struggle and opens up the opportunity of mobile rather than positional warfare. It will help shift the mind-set that there is only one answer; a one size fits all solution.
Given that the government started out intending to destroy all public sector pension schemes, it will be a victory when they are forced to concede the continuity of the schemes, whatever difficult decisions workers in those schemes will have to address. It is also heartening to note that the pensions fight is alive in the private sector, where Unilever workers are taking industrial action over plans to downgrade their pension scheme.
So despite all the shortcomings within the unions, 30 November 2011 was a clarion call “warts and all”, which went right across Britain and coincided with an upsurge in the hatred towards the EU. Note that since then the Coalition and the quisling Scottish National Party have sought to put the question of Britain’s division on to the front burner. They fear organised British workers, and 30 November showed the beginnings of what a united British working class can achieve – but the key is still guerrilla struggle without silly “gestures and heroics”.
Of course, the EU orders to the British government are to undermine both public and private pension provision by further tightening the already destructive pensions accountancy rules. Unless they are tackled these changes will encourage companies to further withdraw from pension provision, returning individuals to personalised pensions savings and impoverishing future generations. Unions must revisit their policies towards the EU in the light of this attack. ■