Transformation of the whole labour movement is urgently required, writes Peter Manson
With great reluctance for the most part, the leaders of the public sector unions are being pulled towards strike action to defend their members’ jobs, conditions and pensions.
As readers will know, the first cross-union, coordinated action will take place on June 30, following the large majority votes for a strike in the National Union of Teachers (92%), Association of Teachers and Lecturers (83%) and the Public and Commercial Services union (61%). Three quarters of a million workers are expected to be out on that day. Even the National Association of Head Teachers is balloting for action, although it is looking ahead to what is likely to be the second round of walkouts in the autumn rather than June 30. Like the ATL, the NAHT has never before called its members out on strike.
What has really angered teachers and civil servants is the outrageous attempt to slash their modest retirement pensions. Under the government’s proposals, public sector workers will pay much more in contributions (up to 10% of their salary), work years longer, until the age of 66 (and eventually 68), and at the end of it get lower pensions than those received by their colleagues who are already retired. To save money, the government wants pensions calculations to be based on a worker’s career-average salary, not what they earn on retirement, as at present – a huge difference. And, to rub salt in the wound, annual increases would no longer be linked to the retail price index, but the rather lower consumer price index.
According to Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the treasury, this pitiful ‘offer’ is “by far the best that is likely to be on the table for years to come” and striking against “the best pensions available” would only lead to a worse deal. Alexander praised Lord Hutton – a New Labour collaborator with the coalition government – for creating “the chance of a better change” in drawing up the recommendations upon which the proposals are based. Instead of going out on strike, the unions should help “shape” the deal.
Surely public sector workers must realise that their pensions are exceedingly generous, compared to the private sector? Well, that depends on which particular people in the private sector you are talking about. Top managers, like civil service bosses, pocket sums most workers can only dream about on retirement. But, in any case, the whole system rests on direct deductions from wages and contributions made by the employer in lieu of higher pay. In that sense pensions are nothing but deferred wages.
And, of course, our answer to the attempt to pit worker against worker, public sector against private, is to demand decent pensions for all: their upward equalisation.
Great play has been made of the fact that none of the successful ballots achieved anything like a 50% turnout – for the PCS it was more like 20%. This led to fresh calls for the 50% threshold to be made a legal requirement – Neil Bentley, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said that the government ought to rush in emergency legislation to stop the strikes here and now.
For Alexander the reason why most members of the unions concerned did not take part in the strike ballots was that “the vast majority realise such a step is unjustifiable”. By the same token, Tory MPs and councillors elected on low turnouts must be bitterly opposed by the “vast majority” of their constituents, I suppose, and their election should be declared illegitimate.
No, the low turnout clearly does not reflect active opposition to the proposed action – if there really was such hostility to it, then obviously it would simply be voted down. But there is no getting away from the fact that it does reflect a lack of enthusiasm – a belief that nothing much can be changed by militant action (or by voting, for that matter). The truth is, huge numbers of workers are alienated by the circumstances of their existence under capitalism – and that includes those aspects that aim to alleviate it. The concept of collective action not just to win improvements, but to overturn the whole system, is also a casualty. We on the left bear a big responsibility for this – but that is another story.
The main gripe of many union leaders seems to be that ministers are just not serious about negotiations. Union bureaucrats are reasonable people, you know. Instead of announcing the changes to the media virtually as a fait accompli, why not sit round the table with them and strike an amicable deal? After all, it is only four years since the public sector last accepted measures to make pensions ‘affordable’ – in 2007 they agreed to a two-tier system, whereby new recruits would have to suffer some of the things the government now wants to impose on everybody. What a surprise!
Despite assurances back then that the new arrangements would eliminate the pensions deficit, CBI director-general John Cridland said the gap between contributions and pay-out is now “£10 billion a year, and growing”. So what went wrong, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber wants to know – why not show us the actual figures? In fact, certain union bureaucrats are doing the media rounds saying that if the government can prove that the proposed measures are necessary then “of course” they will call off the strikes. But we should not be in the business of balancing the books for the capitalists. If their system is so badly malfunctioning that it cannot afford existing pensions, let alone decent ones, then it is the system that should go. That should be the message coming from the lips of trade union leaders.
In the meantime we have heard fighting talk from Unison general secretary Dave Prentis. He has promised that his union will begin balloting over a million council and NHS staff in the autumn and said the government should brace itself for a “massive”, “long-term” wave of industrial action – the biggest “since the General Strike”, with up to 10 million people involved. “We wanted to negotiate all the way through,” said Prentis. “But if we’re going to be treated with disdain …”
It is more than a shame then that Unison will not be out on June 30. However, the next round of strikes needs to involve the widest sections of the organised working class. The TUC should be flooded with resolutions demanding a protest general strike against the government’s ‘age of austerity’. Cuts do not just affect public sectors workers, but all those who use government services: ie, everybody.
Predictably, shadow chancellor Ed Balls was not going to support any strikes. He said: “The trade unions must not walk into the trap of giving George Osborne the confrontation that he wants to divert attention from a failing economy.” Obviously, workers should just wait around until the next election and replace George with Ed at No11. Then we will have kinder, slower cuts and a marginally less brutal assault on pensions. Then again, when has Labour ever supported strike action (apart from Solidarity in Poland, that is)?
But that can and must be changed. Labour needs to serve the movement, not the other way round. Prentis and all the other trade union leaders could exercise control in the Labour Party – they have the financial clout and the millions of block votes. They could, that is, if they had the will – or if they were forced to.
The demand for the “massive”, “long-term” wave of industrial action must be taken into the Labour Party itself. Ed Balls should be told in no uncertain terms to back our industrial action or face the boot. The same goes for Ed Miliband and the whole shadow cabinet. Instead of talk of kinder, slower cuts, we need intransigent opposition and a clear class line. This year’s Labour Party conference in Liverpool is due to be another tame rally, a show box for Ed Miliband. That is what the fixers and spin doctors are planning. But it could be different. If the unions applied their strength the conference could be transformed into a platform for working class anger and a springboard for working class resistance.
Of course, there are those who think the Con-Lib Dem government will be a pushover. That is why last weekend’s Morning Star editorial was completely wrong to claims that “The government’s threats represent weakness rather than strength and the unions are justified in calling its bluff …” (June 18-19). We should not be fooled by tensions within the coalition between the Tories and Liberal Democrats, believing them to represent “weakness” on the part of the government. The Lib Dems are stuck with the coalition – to break with it and so force an election would see them wiped out, and they know it.
What of the Socialist Workers Party with its call for indefinite strike action? Internally the SWP is egging on its members with the prospect of a second wave of strikes in the autumn, when the slogan, “Come out, stay out”, would be on the agenda. But what would an indefinite general strike mean? It could only be a battle for power. Society would grind to a halt and we would have to be ready to fill the vacuum. In current circumstances, in the absence of a mass revolutionary party, to talk in such terms is crazy.
It is true that the SWP is linking its mobilisation for June 30 with attempts to recruit to itself. So union militants must be won, in the first instance, to come to the Marxism festival, which actually starts that day. The call is: “Build for a wave of resistance, build Marxism 2011” (Party Notes June 20). The mass strike provides “fertile ideological soil for Marxism 2011. Every person won to coming to Marxism 2011 is a step towards building a socialist spine for the resistance now taking place.”
It would clearly be an excellent thing if even a tiny proportion of the June 30 strikers attended Marxism. But the problem is the SWP’s limited – and sectarian – view of what they should then do. Simply join the SWP, of course. Yet it has only set itself a target of winning 1,000 extra members in 2011. An ambitious and substantial increase on one level, but how would an organisation of, say, 3,000 members match up to the tasks of leading a general strike and the subsequent battle for power?
This also leaves out of the equation the question of what sort of party? Just the SWP writ large? No, that would make no real difference. If we are to win more than concessions, the transformation of the whole labour movement, including the Labour Party, is urgently required and integral to that is the building of a mass Communist Party armed with a genuinely Marxist programme.