Friday, 29 July 2011

The difference between fighting talk and putting up a fight in the public sector pensions struggle

Yesterday, the government confirmed the changes to public sector pensions - leaving two million workers to pay an extra £1.1bn in contributions. The unions immediately responded with "anger," Dave Prentis of Unison calling it a "crude and naive tactic," whilst others agreed that it was "undermining talks." But the fact is that the government did this for just one reason: nothing is stopping them.

PCS make the point that the government is pressing ahead "despite the evidence clearly demonstrating that changes are not required." They "know that our pensions are affordable and sustainable" and urge the government to "engage in serious and honest negotiations" on the issue. But such a statement, whilst supposedly showing "anger," entirely misses the point. Whilst it is true that "there is an alternative" to what is currently going on, it is likewise true that "our society is not a debating chamber, but a power struggle between different groups with competing interests."

If we want the government to back down - especially if we want them to go in retreat rather than just allow union bureaucrats to slow down the attacks and claim victory - we need to take direct action. "We might have right on our side, but might will determine the outcome." This is something Mark Serwotka appeared to acknowledge when he said that mass strikes "will grow incrementally." But this is mere sabre-rattling, as he doesn't want a class struggle but merely "to ensure the so-called consultation is taken seriously by government." Clearly, this is not enough, as it guarantees only that union leaders will be involved in the process of changing public sector pensions. Not to forget that, as the pensions issue has become a proxy for the entire anti-cuts movement, the wider fight is substantially weakened if there is enough compromise on this issue for Serwotka et al. to safely withdraw strike action.

Beyond the "militant" members of the so-called "awkward squad," the situation becomes even bleaker. As I mentioned in my last post, Unison is keen to delay action as long as possible - perhaps until next year - if it is to strike at all. This means that, whilst PCS is already releasing materials to build for strike action in the autumn, there is a significant possibility that the ranks will not swell beyond those seen on June 30th. Not least because the reformists' only response - lobbying the TUC to call the action - is a guaranteed non-starter.

As a counterpoint to this, there needs to be a much greater effort to build up rank-and-file action. Already, on June 30th, we saw a positive response to campaigns aimed at "generalising the strike." But we can go further, for instance ensuring that other anti-cuts actions - from pickets of Atos Origin and student demonstrations to UK Uncut direct actions - take place at the same time, and by expanding our tactics to include economic blockades and attempts to shut down entire sections of the economy. In short, the aim should be to cause the maximum possible chaos and disruption at the same time as the strikes, with the aim of forcing the ruling class onto the back foot through our economic power.

This should all be underpinned by efforts to get as much of the working class organised as possible. Not with token numbers-boosting exercises such as Unite offering cut-price membership to students and the unemployed, but through serious efforts to empower the rank-and-file to act collectively upon their own initiative, using direct action to force concessions - whether that be from bosses, landlords, or local authorities.

Not only will a broader section of the working class winning victories shift power in our favour more generally, by fostering a culture of solidarity and direct action over legalism it presents an untold mass of additional forces for when mass strikes arise. At that, forces which have the strength and confidence to act without heed to the caution of bureaucrats or rigged strike laws.

If we do not do this, then all we can hope for is defeat.