Saturday, 17 December 2011

Government and TUC move to demobilise pensions fight

The government has issued threats to the unions in an attempt to force them to accept the current offer over public sector pensions. At the same time, the Trades Union Congress is arguing that it's time to take what's on offer. For rank-and-file workers whose pensions are on the line, we're getting dangerously close to being sold a defeat that could have far reaching consequences.

The TUC Public Sector Liaison Group (PSLG) met on 15 December to discuss the follow-up to the November 30 strikes. At this meeting, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber argued that all unions should sign up to the latest agreement on offer from the government. Dave Prentis, the General Secretary of Unison, followed suit with a similar argument. It seems that other unions, notably PCS, did not agree. However, this news should still set alarm bells ringing for many people.

There has been no substantial change to the offer on the table before the strikes took place. A concession was made to health workers - however this was only to delay the rise in contributions for two years for lower-paid workers, with higher-paid workers making up the difference. The main bone of contention over the reforms - that we have to work longer and pay more to get less - remains.

As such, what we would be seeing here is the unions taking strike action over an issue and then calling off the dispute with absolutely nothing gained by the action. This has, understandably, angered a lot of people. However it should come as no surprise given that whilst the media has painted a picture of militant union bosses leading reluctant workers out on strike, the reverse is true - with union tops forced to take action by rank-and-file anger, and ready to take the first concessions they can credibly sell to their membership as a "win."

At the same time, the PCS union reports that "the government is trying to bully union members into accepting massive cuts to their pensions by threatening to exclude their representatives from further negotiations if they don't agree." With a deadline of 10am on Monday, they are demanding that the unions agree to the offer or be excluded and have it imposed anyway.

The calculated move from the government is to be expected given that they are on the other side of the dispute and fighting to win. But it also suggests an acute awareness of the role of the trade union bureaucracy in industrial relations. No doubt they will be banking on the fact that being part of the process will be more important to the union structures than whether or not that process affects members. After all, their very role stems from an acceptance of unions in the capitalist order and in the interests of self-preservation it would be pretty stupid of them to lose that.

Not so from the point of view of the workers, however. For ourselves, winning the pensions dispute is far more vital than whether or not the unions are included in the process of reforms. The main reason for this is that we all want to be able to retire comfortably, rather than have to work until we die or spend old age in poverty. But there is also the question of how much more we will lose as a movement if we lose this dispute.

As I've said previously;
The strike on November 30 will be the biggest action since 1926, and from their reactions in the media of late it is clear that the government are worried. But they also know that if they win this fight, then the last stronghold of the trade unions will be broken.

This is no small matter. In the pensions dispute itself, the issue is workers being made to work longer and pay out more to get less when they retire. However, as deputy director-general of the CBI John Cridland has noted, "public sector pensions remain the biggest barrier to the private and third sectors providing public services." In other words, if they win this fight the government can carve up and sell off the welfare state for private profit. Already they are preparing to do this with the NHS, and the lukewarm response from the TUC will have emboldened them to try it elsewhere.

With privatisation, of course, comes casualisation, and a whole extra rank of workers caught by the government's proposed reforms. More than that, with the trade union movement defeated - and laws enacted to neuter any resurgence - they wouldn't have even a fighting chance of taking them on. The roll back would only continue, and accelerate, until all the work of our movement is undone.
In response to the potential of a sell out deal, the National Shop Stewards Network have called for a lobby of the PSLG when it meets on Monday. They are demanding that the current deal is rejected, that negotiations are democratically controlled and that the date is named for the next coordinated strike.

Certainly, I'd agree with all of the above as far as they go. However it has to be recognised, firstly, that even the strategy of periodic one-day strikes which the TUC now wish to abandon for a deal was itself severely limited. If the limit of our imagination is another single day of action, then even if we can make it an all out general strike we will not guarantee anything close to victory - of which point Greece is the prime exemplar.

Secondly, if we are to avoid the pit falls of a leadership that will take a deal as soon as it gets the opportunity, we must do so not by "lobbying" them but by re-empowering the rank-and-file.

I've heard previously a number of arguments against this, including the old chestnut that union members just aren't militant enough. However, people are waking up in ever greater numbers to just how much this dispute affects them. In fact, in my branch's Autumn AGM and the members' meeting we held ahead of November 30, the thing that really got them talking was the idea that "one day strike just isn't enough."

There's militancy there, but it's buried underneath 3 decades of defeat and a trade union movement which has systematically alienated rank-and-file workers whilst fighting for a role in managing the roll-back of everything our class has ever won.

Rather than slowing ourselves down to the pace of a demobilised and demoralised working class, militants should be fighting to remobilise them and rebuild morale. It can be done, if we put in the time and the effort to build from the bottom up. This is where the real pressure on the TUC and union leaders will come from. And if it spreads far enough, it will also be our means to push beyond them.