Britain Rocked by Biggest Strike Since 1926
By Pam Woods
In the biggest strike since the historic general strike of 1926, over a million local government workers struck in defense of their pensions yesterday, March 28th. This was undoubtedly the largest and most solid public sector strike ever in Britain.
Town halls, schools, colleges, fire stations, police stations, toll bridges and airports were among the services affected as workers sent a message to the government: hands off our pensions! For the first time in its history, the Mersey Tunnel in Liverpool was closed. In Northern Ireland and Newcastle, all trains and buses were at a standstill, while hardly any buses ran in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Rubbish remained uncollected and streets unswept.
The mood on the picket lines was cheerful, buoyant and confident. Workers feel the government is trying to rob them of what is rightfully theirs and are prepared to dig in for a long fight if necessary. Reports on the strike in France were enthusiastically received.
In all, workers from nine trade unions took part in the strike. For the first time, those workers whose jobs have been hived off to private companies also took part. This is a huge step forward. In the past the unions have refused to ballot these workers. Under Tory anti-union legislation, left in place by the “New” Labor government, any strike action by workers that is not directly against their actual employer—in this case the private contractors—is deemed to be “not a legitimate trade dispute” and, therefore, illegal. This has been an enormous barrier to solid and effective strikes in the past. In Islington, the private contractor that runs the refuse collection and street cleaning service threatened legal action against the Britain’s General Union (GMB), claiming the strike was unlawful. At 5 a.m., Unison members who drive the school buses set up a picket outside the depot and GMB members refused to cross, bringing the service to a standstill.
The government plans to abolish the so-called 85-year-rule. This is the rule whereby workers whose combined age and number of years in the pension scheme total 85 are able to retire on full pension at the age of 60. It is worth noting that 75 percent of all workers in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) receive a pension of less than $138. a week. This is after many years of paying a proportion of their wages each month into the scheme. The average retired woman worker receives only around $45. a week from the scheme. Not a fortune, but we want to preserve what we have.
It is significant that one of the reasons the LGPS is in financial difficulty is that councils now employ a significantly fewer number of workers than they did 20 or so years ago—yet the workload has remained the same! In addition, many workers whose jobs have been privatized are now excluded from the scheme. There are therefore fewer workers still working and paying into the scheme and supporting those workers already retired.
Last year, a national strike involving all public sector workers was called off at the last minute when union leaders cut a deal with the government. This allowed the government to make concessions to teachers, civil servants, firefighters and NHS staff, leaving local government workers to stand alone. Therefore, while teachers’ pensions are, for the time being, untouched, not so classroom assistants. Firefighters’ pensions are also currently not under threat, but those of administrative staff in fire stations are.
However, those workers whose unions have already negotiated a deal on their pensions have shown magnificent solidarity with local government workers. A huge number of members of the teachers’ unions, for example, refused to work without support staff—classroom assistants, administrative staff and caretakers. Postal workers refused to deliver mail to buildings where workers were on strike.
This strike represents a revival of class struggle and class solidarity in Britain and shows the strength of the organized working class. Workers are heartily sick of “New” Labor. The sleaze allegations surrounding the government—that businessmen have handed over sums of money that most workers would never see in an entire lifetime in return for a seat in the House of Lords—alongside the continuing pro-capitalist policies, have compounded to increase the sense of injustice felt by workers whose measly pension rights are now under threat.
Union leaders had been heavily involved in negotiations with the government in the run-up to another strike, and it would appear they were confident a deal could be brokered. But it seemed the government had dug its heels in. More strikes are now planned, including one on the day of the local elections in May. Today’s papers reported, however, that government ministers, apparently shocked at the size of the strike, have requested urgent talks with union leaders.
We must be vigilant that the union leaders make no concessions on other fronts, such as a possible increase in employee contributions, in order to preserve the 85-year-rule. Workers entered a contract with the employers when we joined the LGPS. That contract is not negotiable. Workers have paid into the scheme in good faith, making significant financial sacrifices to do so. We have a right to receive what we were promised, and at the age we were promised.
It is vital that the utmost unity between all the unions involved be preserved if the government refuses to back down and we have to take further action. Workers from the different unions participated in joint pickets and rallies. We must ensure the union leaders also continue to work together to achieve maximum unity and maximum effect.
The union leaders must ensure that workers whose jobs have been privatized but whose terms and conditions still rely on local government collective bargaining agreements be allowed to participate in any future strikes, even if this means breaking the law. We cannot be allowed to continue fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. The present government has no intention whatsoever of repealing the anti-union laws and the unions must therefore be prepared to challenge them, even at the risk of sequestration of assets. The miners’ union found ways around the threat to sequestrate its funds and assets during their strike of 1984-85, including a mass occupation of the regional headquarters in South Wales. It can be done again.
Our pensions are not negotiable—no concessions!
Maximum unity! Force the government to back off!
Dignity for retired workers!
Pam Woods is a member of Unison (the union of local government workers) in Islington, England and is a shop steward.
—In Defense of Marxism, March 29, 2006