The editorial and reports from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.
Over one million strike over pensions
Over one million local government workers joined the one-day strike on 28 March to defend their current pension entitlements. They showed the volcanic anger amongst working-class people against Blair and the Labour government.
Council workers are rightly furious about attempts to strip their relatively meagre pension entitlement when government ministers, MPs and fat cats have protected their sumptuous pensions. Female local government workers get on average £31 a week in their pension packet compared to the £700-plus a week that MPs can get.
This was the biggest co-ordinated strike action for over two decades and a strike that government and union leaders had wanted to avoid.
In March and October 2005 the government, realising the balance of forces weighed against it when two previous pensions’ strikes were looming, retreated and ring-fenced existing workers’ conditions in the health sector, education and the civil service. Since then it retreated further over firefighters’ pensions and gave protection to existing firefighters’ pension schemes.
Local government union leaders had assumed, wrongly, that the government would automatically give the same protection to existing local government workers. But, the government was caught in a bind between the intransigence of the Tory-controlled local government employers’ association and the government’s own inability to find enough ‘wriggle room’ to allow union leaders to call off threatened action.
The government had thought it could offer an inferior deal to local government workers than to other public-sector workers and get away with it. However, such is the mood amongst local government workers that their union leaders know they could accept nothing less than what was previously offered to other public-sector workers.
Adding fuel to the flames the Blair/Brown government announced in last week’s budget that it was imposing a public-sector pay limit of 2.2% (except for nurses) and carrying out further massive job cuts in the public sector - especially in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Little wonder then that even the UNISON Affiliated Political Fund (Labour Link) was obliged last week to suspend support for New Labour in the May elections while industrial action continues (see page 11).
Local government workers need to put pressure on their union leaders to develop a coherent strategy for winning their pensions dispute. At present, the leaders are sending out mixed messages on how the struggle is to be developed if the government doesn’t back down after the recent action.
At local level, union activists organised effectively for the strike day to ensure the strike action would bite. At national and regional level, however, union leaders kept inter-union co-operation to a minimum, tried to play the strike down and organised low-key rallies rather than marches to bring striking members of all unions together.
The bigger unions, like UNISON, tried to give the appearance of having a strategy to take the strike forward - including selective action, regional action in April and a further two days of strike action on 4 and 5 May.
The socialist has pointed out before that selective action should only be an auxiliary to more generalised action involving all the workers. In itself, selective action cannot be the way forward for this strike. And, whilst regional strikes and the strikes planned for 4-5 May will be welcomed, there will also be doubts - given the emphasis on selective action - that union leaders have mapped out their current ‘strategy’ only as an attempt to frighten the government.
Past experience, however, shows that it is more often the union leaders who take fright when the government digs its heels in. Union activists should now demand, following the buoyant mood of the first strike day, that their unions escalate the strike action to two or three days within the next few weeks to build on, rather than dissipate, the mood.
Although the government was forced to partially retreat last year on pensions, it is clear, given Brown’s budget attacks on public-sector workers, that whoever is prime minister in this Labour administration will make further swingeing cuts in public spending and public-sector jobs.
Local government unions should urgently demand that other unions and the TUC give them maximum support by calling an emergency national demonstration on pensions. The plan announced by British Airways last week to make its existing workers work five years longer for their pensions - along with the half a million workers robbed of their pensions in recent years - shows the urgent need to draw private-sector workers into this struggle as well.
The fight for a decent pension for all workers, as well as defending the public sector, is an ongoing battle that needs to be fought industrially and politically. UNISON members, along with members of other unions affiliated to Labour, should demand that they pay no further money to Labour full stop. Instead their unions should use their money and energy to support a campaign for a new workers’ party that will seriously fight for the interests of working-class people.
Support for new workers’ party
Hundreds of striking local government workers signed the declaration for a new workers’ party on the picket lines on 21 March. They were outraged that their union leaders have been donating millions of pounds to a Labour Party that then turns round and attacks their pensions.
"There were about 300 striking workers at the rally in Southampton," reported Nick Chaffey "Socialist Party members went round with the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) declaration and got a great response. We had to have a lengthy conversation with everyone who signed, they were so enthusiastic about the campaign.
"After the rally we held a Socialist Party/CNWP meeting. 16 people came - mostly striking UNISON and TGWU members and some PCS activists. We had a good discussion about the cuts being imposed on everyone’s workplace, pay and conditions and the need for the trade unions to organise effective opposition.
"The strikers felt the next pensions strikes should be two or three days long and raised some questions about the wisdom of selective action.
"We’ve been raising the question of building a new workers’ party in our UNISON branch for a while. And today’s meeting meant we were able to establish it more firmly amongst Southampton council workers.
"Earlier when I visited the picket line at a council depot, the TGWU steward told me he was particularly worried about all the attacks on young people at the moment - the attack on pensions is just part of the story. But he’d done something about it, got young workers into the union and there were several young TGWU members with him on the picket line."
Glenn Kelly is a local government representative on the national committee of UNISON. He was elected trade union liaison officer at the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) conference on 19 March and spoke to the socialist in that capacity.
He said: "I can understand why millionaires give money to the Labour Party - but not union leaders. Millionaires get something in return and it’s not just peerages. They get to dictate education policy and win juicy NHS contracts.
"But what have UNISON members get from the millions of pounds that our union leaders have handed over to Labour? Cuts, privatisation and vicious attacks on wages, conditions and services.
"The pensions strike shows that the time has come to stop funding the party that’s kicking us in the teeth. It’s time for a new working-class party. We aim to have at least 5,000 signatures by the end of the year on our declaration for a new workers’ party.
"Help us build a campaign for a party that will defend our pensions and stand up for our rights in the same way that New Labour stands up for the bosses and the millionaires."
The strike in Coventry was solid, with local authority services either closed or operating at a reduced level. About 100 trade unionists attended a rally at lunchtime to hear local union representatives giving a damning indictment of the attack on the pension scheme.
Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist gained the day’s best response, when he raised the idea of the unions breaking from Labour and setting up a new workers’ party. Throughout the day, dozens of pickets signed the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party (CNWP) declaration and eagerly took the Socialist Party leaflet on the pensions dispute.
In Swansea and West Wales, many schools and offices were locked up and pickets were on almost every street corner. Jeff Baker, UNISON regional organiser, responsible for council workers in Swansea, said that he was: "Very pleased with the response today which was absolutely solid. The mood is as strong as its been for many years."
On the binworkers’ picket line the feeling was strongly for an escalation of the dispute. "Because a one-day strike just gives the press a chance to have a go at us, we need to be all out to win."
Ronnie Job, a UNISON picket at Gorseinon College, said: "Half of our members were on the picket line and we have caused severe disruption. A lot of lecturers, despite massive pressure from the college authorities, refused to cross the picket lines, along with students. We need to step up strike action and not rely on the selective action being proposed by the union leaders."
There was widespread support for the pensions strike in Southwark, south London. Picket lines were present on many council buildings and depots as well as at the London College of Printing.
At the Manor Place depot Mohammed told me that he had worked for the council for eight years and had been a union steward for seven. "There is strong support for this strike amongst my members. A lot have paid into the pension scheme for years and are pissed off with what is happening."
Another worker said that they should stay out on unofficial strike till they won. Mohammed agreed that they needed more strikes of at least two days if they are to win.
April Ashley, deputy housing convenor and a member of the Socialist Party, told me: "There is solid and strong support for the action. People are convinced that it will take more than a one-day strike to force the government to give in. We were told it was going to be two days this time and people were disappointed that it is only one day. We need to make sure that, when strike days are announced, the leadership is not allowed to change them at the last minute.
"Loads of people will be losing part of their pensions and women in particular are very angry at what is happening. They already have less pension entitlement than the average because they have their careers disrupted to bring up families. They have reluctantly accepted this because they thought the conditions aren’t too bad and there’s some security. But now they will get even less pensions they’re really angry."
Tyneside virtually ground to a halt. The Metro and the Tyne tunnel were closed due to strike action. In the city centre the demonstrators outnumbered the shoppers!
Greg spoke to a bus driver on the way to the demo. The bus driver said: "It’s been dead quiet on the buses, ‘cos everyone thinks we’re on strike as well".
Strikers from various picket lines spoke to the socialist: "Northumbria university has closed for the day because they cannot guarantee health and safety. Everyone is being paid because they don’t know who is and who isn’t on strike!" Lottie Hann
"It’s been a really good turn out. In the probation service there’s a very strong feeling about the pension issue. Nearly all of us are out - most of them working aren’t in a union." Jacqui Cox.
"Three out of four Newcastle probation offices are closed due to the strike". Joanne Wallace (NAPO). "The government is stealing five years from us" and "Nobody is fighting for the ordinary person" were the reactions from Newcastle city council workers.
A highly visible group of UNISON members picketed County Council departments across Winchester city centre.
Toby Harris, Winchester Socialist Party
Julie Murdoch, Hampshire UNISON branch secretary told the socialist: "We are pissed off with the government, which has agreed to protect other public-sector workers but is treating others who work alongside them unequally."
Leslie Roberts, a UNISON member who works in children’s services told us how she was assured several years ago she could retire at 60 in six year’s time on a full pension. If the 85-year rule is abolished, she will instead have to work for another fourteen years, or face losing 27% of her pension entitlement!
Many workers we spoke to we enraged at this betrayal and open theft by New Labour of their money and several signed the Campaign for New Workers’ Party declaration.
It was obvious that the gains won by PCS workers had encouraged UNISON members to defend their pension rights. Some workers were on strike for the first time, but no doubt not the last!
Sales of The Socialist
The Socialist’s front page calling for the TUC to organise a national ‘Defend Pensions’ demo went down well on the picket lines.
In Southampton, workers wanted to discuss with Socialist Party members about stopping members’ dues going to New Labour and the need for a party that represents ordinary people. Many new signatures to the CNWP declaration were added, with 20 papers sold - more could have been sold if there had been time for more discussions!
In Huddersfield Socialist Party members sold out of papers. 20 people came to a CNWP meeting and one person joined the Socialist Party.
In Walthamstow (where 42 papers were sold at the weekend when campaigning against NHS cuts and closures), Martin Reynolds sold 11 papers at Low Hall Depot and the Town Hall. Sheffield Socialist Party sold 41, twelve were sold in Manchester, eight in Tunbridge Wells and ten in Brighton.