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Round One of the action is over. And there is still everything to play for...

Local government pensions: the battle starts

WORKERS, MAY 2006 ISSUE

Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart, leader of the employers' side of the Local Government Association in the pensions dispute, began the recent struggle as a humble knight and has since been promoted to a lord. This is something akin to the promotion of a German officer after fighting a losing battle on the Russian front in 1942.

The significance of every struggle is the unity of the workers, and the local government pension struggle has had a beneficial effect of getting the unions to work together more at local and national level. This is important, as a wave of fragmentation and privatisation is hitting, causing the same unions to launch a national campaign with others to assert public services over private profit. There will be a lobby of parliament on 27 June.

The largest union in the country brought together all the unions concerned including some of the smallest to organise negotiations with employers and the biggest strike for many years. A future strategy known as 'rolling thunder' was also devised which would have taken out key sections of workers, disrupted the local government elections and sustained the momentum created on 28 March.

Action
The action on 28 March was taken to bring obdurate employers back to the negotiating table, and it was successful in doing this. With the TUC playing its familiar pseudo ACAS role, a statement was drawn up with the employers which recognises a number of important things the unions were looking for. Firstly, any future changes to the LGPS should be made by agreement. Secondly, 50% of the savings arising from the abolition of the 85 rule and the provision for a 25% tax free lump sum will be made available to provide protection and scheme improvements. Thirdly, there is a commitment to urgent negotiations on protection including full protection for existing members alongside discussions on the new scheme. Lastly, there must be agreement to amend the existing regulations to reflect the outcome of the negotiations before the 85 Rule is removed on 1 October. Negotiations in Scotland and Northern Ireland also commence and the Scottish employers at least have indicated sympathy for the unions' position.

The unions viewed these commitments as sufficient to suspend the action but made it clear that if negotiations failed it would be re started. Only one union opposed the suspension of action but let us hope the other unions' faith in negotiations is not misplaced.

Unions intend now to go back to negotiations confident in their list of demands.
They do so emboldened by the membership support so far and by the research of their own actuaries that shows the LGPS to be sufficiently funded to create improvements for future generations. They do so also with an increasing recognition of what we are up against, that is, a slavish agreement by the British government to kowtow to EU Directives to raise the pension age, lower employers' contributions, raise workers' contributions and diminish benefits. Until Britain abandons such commitments the pensions issue will not go away and all unions will have to go onto the offensive.

The railway workers are preparing for action to protect their pension scheme and local government workers have created a unity that should assist the next round of negotiations.

In any dispute there is a direct relationship between the technicalities of negotiations and the politics of industrial action. Having made strategic and embarrassing errors through the Public Sector Forum, unions have learned some new realities and found the local government membership prepared for action.

Awakening
The consequent campaign and action has wakened many dozing local government branches and involved a new generation for the first time in industrial action, making workers recognise their power and invent tactics. Funds to the Labour Party were withdrawn and the prospect of no open polling stations on 4 May concentrated a few minds.

So where are we now? Round One over, the employers back at the table for urgent negotiations with the unions committed to collective responsibility and leading the work on costings. Workers will have to be able to leave the scheme in the future without loss at 60, and whatever the technicalities we will have to see if the national negotiations retain this principle or concede to EU diktat and the government's craven commitment to them.

Whether the suspension of the action has created a fatal flaw in the unions' ability to secure this also remains to be seen. We should bear in mind all the time that unions have faced an unprecedented attack led by the EU at a time when organisation and awareness has been low. But as always it is action that leads to growth and organisation and all unions involved report growth in membership and branch activity.

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