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The Pensions dispute and the way forward for trade unions

The November 30 strikes saw unprecedented unity in the union movement but the speed of its collapse illustrates just how tenuous it was. Despite claims to have extracted significant concessions from the government, unions that sign up to the government’s offer are really guilty of selling short not only their members but millions more whose hopes for a decent pension depend on solidarity across the unions. This was evident when Danny Alexander triumphantly described the deals as delivering “the Government’s key objectives in full, and do so with no new money since our November offer.”

Why then did some sign up to such deals, especially since the TUC Public Sector Liaison Group (PSLG), representing all the unions involved, had rejected the 2 November offer? Teaching union ATL, ironically one of the vanguard of four unions that took action on 30 June, argue:

The government was quite clear that the offer it made on 19 December was a final offer, and that any further industrial action would not improve it. In the current economic and political climate we believe that the 19 December offer is the best deal we could get through negotiation. Further prolonged industrial action, which is the only alternative, could lead to the government imposing significantly worse terms than are currently offered.”

This is the sort of approach condemned by Mark Serwotka when he wrote in the Morning Star of “a deep-seated fatalism within parts of the leadership of the movement that says you can never win, that industrial action, even on the scale of November 30, will never beat the government back.” His union, the PCS, rejected the offer outright.

Other unions like Unison and GMB had previously announced they were prepared for prolonged action. Dave Prentis of Unison had said “we are prepared for rolling action over an indefinite period”. By December, Unison and the GMB joined other unions in accepting the Local Government deal. Despite initially seeming to join them, Unite has since rejected it, followed by the FBU (which represents fire control staff in the LGPS). Unite’s initial reason for pulling away was a now retracted letter from local government secretary Eric Pickles, which stated that employers contributions would be capped.

The cap makes it easier to transfer more of the public sector into the private sector, limiting the employer’s liability and transfering it to the employee. Danny Alexander admitted as much when he said “the new pensions will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers.

Divided we stand, united we fall?

The major tactical mistake by the unions was to agree to enter into scheme specific talks after the 2 November offer which allowed the government to play divide and rule. Some unions counselled against this approach, but were over-ruled at the TUC by the large local government unions.

The government had three main aims: to cut the indexation rate, raise the retirement age and increase contributions from members, all of which remain in all the proposed deals. Even though the existing schemes are all affordable and sustainable, the government sees this as a useful tool for deficit reduction (as Osborne acknowledged in 2010) and for privatisation. The best that has been achieved is that extra contributions will be delayed until (at least) 2014 in the local government scheme.

So who sits where?

  • In local government, Unison and GMB (who together cover the vast majority of those affected) have signed up, while Unite and the FBU have rejected.
  • In health, Unison and GMB signed the Heads of Agreement and will shortly ballot members (though this press release from GMB demonstrates no enthusiasm), while Unite has rejected.
  • In the civil service, PCS, POA, Unite and NIPSA (representing about 85% of unionised civil servants) have all refused, while the GMB, Prospect and FDA continue to talk.
  • In the teachers’ pension scheme, the NUT, NASUWT, UCU, EIS, UCAC and INTO (representing over 80% of unionised education staff) have refused while ATL and the NAHT have signed up.

Capitulating unions seem happy to continue to talk to a government that has excluded non-signing unions from any talks. So Unison and GMB leaderships met with government to negotiate around the margins of the local government scheme, behind the backs of Unite. The FDA and Prospect are prepared to do the same in the civil service, as are the ATL and NAHT in the teachers’ scheme. This can only be described as crossing class lines. Due to the threat of legal action, PSLG, PCS and Unite have been readmitted to the talks.

The future currently offers little prospect of defeating the government on its pay policy or on its proposed 710,000 job cuts. How will unions trust each other, and why would the government take them seriously when they have been so easily divided and cowed this time?

It is obvious that there is a need for stronger grassroots organisation within and across the unions. A leader with too much power and no countervailing pressure or accountability mechanism is a familiar concept to those of us in the Labour Party and strengthening grassroots organisation with the union movement can only benefit the left in the Labour Party.

The trade union movement has also been split between those prepared to fight on and those that prefer an easy life (although they still have to ballot their members) which demonstrates the importance of co-ordination between unions at branch level. Trades councils generally bring together a delegate from each local union, but more consideration should be given to opening meetings up to all trade union activists as some do already. Sharing information between unions is the best way to resolve conflicting messages from different unions.

But more than this, there needs to be some national level co-ordination. The meeting called by PCS Left Unity on 7 January was a welcome step forwards although such open meetings tend to become a sectarian battleground. It is therefore welcome that a committee of union broad lefts continues to meet.

This sort of parallel cross-union structure could have increased the pressure on union leaderships to maintain unity, and would assist future co-ordinated action over pay, job cuts or privatisation. What this cannot overcome is that, in some unions, broad lefts are in a minority (and some in a very small minority) on their committees — whilst successful in such unions as the PCS, Unite, NUT, UCU, and CWU, they are weaker in Unison, and non-existent in the GMB.

It is also now worth asking if we should be encouraging people to switch from compliant to fighting unions, making an historic shift in UK industrial convention. The role that the TUC has played in this process — its initial reluctance to call a national protest and refusal to countenance another — has again demonstrated its ability to go only at the pace of its slowest affiliate. Are fighting unions right to pay for the privilege of being dragged back? Or could £3 a year per member be better spent on strike funds, recruitment and organising?

At such a juncture, it can only be right that the UK trade union movement evaluates itself – not from the top, but by the members and activists who pay their subs and organise locally.

This is an abridged version of an article “The Pensions dispute and Labour strategy” that appears at New Left Project.

One Comment

  1. andy newman says:

    I thoroughly disagree with this article, and as there is a different article by me on this website at the same time, I just want to make it clear that I disassociate myself fully from any connection to Andrew Fischer’s arguments, especially his tendentious distinction between “fighting unions” and non-fighting unions; and his call for socialists to change unions.

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