Monday, 19 December 2011

A new atmosphere in pension negotiations

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Brendan Barber has effectively confirmed that capitulation is on the cards in the pensions dispute. No agreement has yet been finalised, but "we have reached a stage where the emphasis in most cases is in giving active consideration to the new proposals that have emerged rather than considering the prospect of further industrial action."

I reported on Saturday that the TUC's Public Sector Liaison Group (PSLG) was being recalled today with a view to signing up to the government's proposals. Although lower-paid health workers were being offered a delay before pension contributions went up (paid for by higher-paid health workers), the meat on the bones remained the same. Yet soon it was being widely reported that the TUC were on course for a sell out, with the National Shop Stewards Network calling a rally to oppose this likelihood.

The fear of - and backlash against - a sell out was widespread enough to make the union bureaucracy respond. In a message to members, UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis emphasised that "no decisions have been taken over the details surrounding contribution increases," whilst the UNISON Active blog attacked "infantile ultra leftists" who are "raising long rehearsed cries of 'betrayal' and ‘sell out’."

As ever, it is easier for the moderates, right-wingers and bureaucrats of the trade union movement to attack the "ultra left" than address the legitimate fears of members. Especially as, in refuting "the lies and misrepresentations of the ultra left," they are in fact confirming those fears. For whilst "no decisions have been taken over the details," Prentis et al are still arguing that "the principles under discussion will provide a very positive framework for negotiations." As such, local government unions have signed "heads of agreement" and will be suspending industrial action as they pursue further talks.

Meanwhile, the level at which UNISON and other local government unions appear to be playing is summed up by Christina McAnea, UNISON Head of Health. "We always knew this would be a damage limitation exercise – aimed at reducing the worst impacts of the government’s pension changes." In other words, the union tops had effectively ruled out fighting to win from the very beginning.

Meanwhile, both PCS and the NUT have publicly declared their opposition to the current offer. For the civil service union, "these terms had already been unanimously rejected by the union's national executive, and the union has reiterated its call to ministers to seriously negotiate on these core issues." The main teaching union similarly declares that "there was insufficient progress in terms of the Government’s position that teachers should work longer, pay more and get less."

The difficulty now will be in getting around the propaganda. PCS, and any union that sticks it out with them, will now be portrayed as unnecessarily militant - after all, if the other unions were moved enough to call off strikes, why not them? There is also the potential of isolation and demoralisation for members, any strike involving less unions being a definite de-escalation from 30 November. More broadly, the trade union movement continues its 30 year losing streak and, with the pensions battle won, the government gets to continue on with its wider attacks on the working class.

This battle may well come down to which way members of UNISON and those unions following its example vote when a deal is put to them. If we want to avoid another managed defeat, rank-and-file workers need to reject their leaders' capitulation and demand that the fight continue.