Mark Serwotka, head of the PCS civil service workers union, spoke to Socialist Worker
“The pensions dispute is at a pivotal stage. People will be deciding in the next few weeks whether we are seriously going to oppose the government’s austerity or are we going to let them get away with attacking our pensions.
We are not where any of us hoped to be following the fantastic strike on 30 November. The decision by many public sector unions to pull back from industrial action was disappointing. It’s best to be frank about that.
But now a smaller number of unions are trying to get fresh mandates from their members to take more concerted action than before.
There are fewer of us, so we need to do more, and at a faster pace than we did before. The meetings between the unions have been altogether more productive and serious than the previous ones at the TUC.
We have agreed we will put a menu of campaign actions to our members, including coordinated strikes, short-duration walkouts, demonstrations, lobbies, protests and targeted action.
The key will be regular meetings between the unions involved. As soon as we have a successful day—as we hope the 28 March will be—we will immediately meet to evaluate how it went and hopefully agree the next action.
Many activists are disappointed that we no longer have the fantastic unity we had on 30 November. That said, you have to be able to point out why we think we can win.
We hope to have action that involves more than one part of the public sector—a minimum of education and the civil service. This shows the government that the fight is broader than over one specific pension scheme.
If we don’t continue the fight, they will have got what they want and will move very swiftly to the next stage of their austerity package.
If we put up resistance now, it will give them the message that people will resist them all the way.
We’ll challenge them on job cuts, pay freezes and privatisation. That’s quite apart from hopefully winning concessions on pensions.
The alternative of not trying is one we would regret for years.
This government has no mandate. It has a number of fronts opening up.
A coordinated concerted opposition from the unions would give confidence to people far beyond the trade union movement.
The unions are speaking to a much wider audience than their own members and on a wider issue than just pensions.
People are really open to the notion that the real political opposition to the government at the moment is the unions.
The Labour Party can no longer credibly oppose the plans after signing up to the mainstream of what the government is actually doing.
A strong industrial campaign now could politically resonate with people in the period ahead. From that a number of things become possible.
For example, we will ballot our members over the summer on the possibility of standing candidates in elections.
That idea came directly from the analysis of the situation now. There are too many issues where no one really provides an alternative.
We see the potential to interweave industrial and political campaigning.
The consultation we’re holding now gives us an opportunity. Every union should aim for better votes than we got last year. Then we’d be starting from a position of strength.
If the PCS gets a bigger turnout with a bigger yes vote than we got in May it would show that people are not beaten down. We can turn around to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and say we are as determined as ever.
To do that we need one-to-one conversations, leafleting outside offices, workplace meetings, town meetings, and getting together with people from other unions.
If we do that, 28 March could really be the beginning of something more significant than what we had last year.
There are a lot of people, and not just in the government but elsewhere, who actually think we will lose.
So to deliver a massive yes vote puts the government on the back foot and allows us to go in the campaign with confidence.”