Local Government Workers Take Action to Protect Pensions
By Mike Calvert
March 28th saw a day of action unlike any other in living memory. More workers took part in strike action than at any one time since 1926. The action wasn’t for more than 24 hours and there were many problems, but the union officialdom were pushed into taking action by their membership, in defense of the local government pension scheme (LGPS).
Much has been written in the national press, the left press and on TV; but on the ground, to be part of a million workers taking concerted collective action is quite an experience. The action led by the Local Government workers union UNISON and supported by eight other trade unions—even including the abjectly craven GMB [Britain’s General Union]—was utterly unprecedented and dominated all the news headlines for the whole day.
Many of those taking part have never taken any form of action before; others haven’t in over thirty years. They were all united by a burning belief that you don’t change the conditions of a deal—a deal is a deal! Never has the issue been so simple in a dispute: We paid into the LGPS, we only want back what we were promised when we signed up!
In Islington (a small North London borough), my little part of the world, picket lines were organized from 5:30 am and hundreds of workers, mainly low-paid workers took part in the action.
UNISON, and I am sure the eight other trade unions were also experiencing this, had no less than 300 people take part in picket lines over the whole Borough. There were no less than 20 picket lines outside various workplaces. UNISON recruited many members who joined on the day so that they could participate in the action to protect their pension scheme rights. In the two weeks running up to the day of action no less than 200 people joined the union. Two libraries and 30 schools were completely closed down!
This state of affairs was reflected all over the country.
In Islington, even the Liberal-Democrats supported the action—for their own political ends of course, given that many of the leaders’ voters are Council workers, and this is election year (May 4th). The sight of the Lib-Dem leader on a council workers rally was unusual to say the least.
What was the strike about?
The government intends to wipe out the right of council workers to retire on full pension entitlement at 60 after at least 25 years‚ service—the so-called “Rule of 85.” Raising the pension age by five years amounts to the same thing, in that it is theft of the deferred wages of workers, paid for by decades of contributions from workers’ wage packets—6 percent of income in the case of council workers, 11 percent in the case of firefighters.
Adding insult to injury, the attempt to abolish the Rule of 85 includes a demand for an extra 1 percent pension contribution from workers.
Public opinion backs the workers and their unions.
The Local Government Chronicle conducted an opinion poll that found 84 percent opposed to the scrapping of the Rule of 85.
The employers’ propaganda about the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) being far too costly to the public, and illegal under European Union regulations on age discrimination, is falling apart. Their claim that LGPS cost 26 percent of Council Tax is rubbish; the true figure is nearer 5 percent. A top EU spokeswoman, Katharina Von Schnurbein, has confirmed that the Rule of 85 does not breach EU legislation and that the UK Government is the only one in Europe concerned about such issues.
The question for us all is what happens next?
Do the union leaders have a strategy for winning this dispute? Well, frankly they would rather not have it at all! They have done their best to get the same deal as the PCS (Public and Commercial Services union) and other unions “won” late last year. For Local Government workers that would represent a backward step, in my view. The momentum is currently with the unions and the action needs to be moved up a notch or two.
It is clear, though, that under pressure, however, the alliance of union leaders leading the dispute may well disintegrate. Or, as they did last year, they could sell-out the rights of future workers in return for a “compromise” on early retirement rights—the Rule of 85. This will only encourage the employers and the government to return to the fray in a couple of years for more take-backs, if the workers allow themselves to be divided by cowardly leaders seeking the easy way out; that is without mobilizing their ranks for effective mass action in defense of their members’ class interests.
The local government union leaders are now trying desperately to get at least the same as everyone else in the public sector, having kept them divided in the first place!
It is vital to get the TUC to call a national day of action over public sector pensions. The bureaucracy is terrified. Having spent almost thirty years in abject compliance, they are now forced to see what industrial action is like once again. The TV has been full of programs and footage from the miners’ strike of 1973 and from 1979 and the so-called Winter of Discontent.
Socialists need to be clear: workers solidarity can win this dispute. What is needed is a leadership that is willing to fight. It is clear that the workers are up for it!