Talks to avert a massive pensions battle went nowhere on Tuesday, and a huge confrontation is looming.
Action by 1.5 million workers, which the unions are calling “the biggest since the 1926 General Strike”, is likely to take place on Tuesday 28 March.
The results of the strike ballots were expected after Socialist Worker went to press this week.
Members of the local government pensions scheme (LGPS) in the Unison, GMB, T&G, Amicus, Ucatt, CYWU, Napo, NUJ, NUT, AEP, Prospect and Community unions have been voting on strikes to defend their pension rights.
We knew one result last week. Amicus members had voted 90 percent for action, an extraordinary result in a section which is traditionally seen as conservative and where little campaigning took place.
On Tuesday representatives from the local government employers, central government, and the unions met in a last ditch effort to reach an agreement.
But it seems that new evidence from the unions was brushed aside. They had demonstrated that the true costs of the present scheme were much lower than had been thought, and reasserted that EU legislation did not mean the scheme had to go.
The government and employers’ refusal to back off means war, and one that our side can win.
An army is ready to move into battle – if the union leaders will mobilise it effectively.
Those who have been balloted are not “bureaucrats with gilded pensions” as much of the media and politicians pretend.
They are some of the country’s lowest paid public sector workers, including teaching assistants, dinner ladies, refuse collectors, school crossing patrol staff, home helps, park keepers, street sweepers and police support staff.
Some 73 percent of LGPS members are women and 60 percent of them work part time.
Women’s average LGPS pension is just £31 a week and 75 percent of all LGPS pensions, for men and women, are under £96 a week.
The immediate focus is the “rule of 85” which says that some local government workers can retire at 60 if they have done 25 years.
But behind this lies the wider issue of resistance to the attacks on pensions which are taking place across the public and private sectors.
Rahul Patel, branch secretary of Westminster Unison, told Socialist Worker, “There is a tremendous feeling for action. I am certain that in my branch more people have voted for strikes than did so last year.
“We need action called that will hit the government and the local employers hard. On 28 March there need to be pickets at workplaces and then big demonstrations in every major city
“One day is very unlikely to shift a government that is determined to cut everyone’s pensions. So we will need escalating action – two days, then more, and without too long between the strikes.
“The local elections are coming. We have to use them to increase the pressure on the government. We must not back away from a fight because union leaders bend to ministers’ fear about what a strike will mean for Labour’s results.
“The bottom line at talks must be no deal if it means any worsening of the scheme for present or future workers.
“We cannot keep leading people up the hill and then leading them down again. The momentum is with us. An army of trade unionists is ready to fight and we will get backing from many others who are also worried about their pensions.
“The last TUC conference passed a motion for a national pensions demonstration. If this coincided with a strike by 1.5 million people it would become a real force against the neo-liberal assault on pensions.”
It was “standing room only” in Cardiff last week at the first of the rail unions’ joint meetings for the pensions campaign.
The RMT, Aslef and TSSA unions are campaigning for a pensions deal that will keep contributions at a reasonable level, maintain benefits, keep schemes open to new members and streamline the proliferation of sections created by the fragmentation of privatisation.
Pension fund rules are set to trigger massive contribution rises from 1 July. The unions have warned that failure to resolve the dispute before then will result in coordinated ballots for industrial action across the industry.
Harrods, the world famous shop in Knightsbridge, London, could face strike action after what the T&G union called a “phoney consultation” over pension cuts.
The firm wants to close its final salary scheme to present staff as well as new entrants.
Madeleine Richards, T&G regional industrial organiser, said the company had refused to consult unions, hiding behind sham consultation with individual employees.
She added that senior management should look closer to home at dividend payments if they wanted to save money:
“Harrods has argued the pension changes are necessary because of the risk of higher costs in the future. If that is the case, the board should look at the £66 million paid in dividends to the owner and chairman in the last two years.”
The National Pensioners Convention launched its national series of protests last weekend with a lobby of the Scottish parliament. Other events have taken place in Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham and Southampton.
The demands of the campaign are to raise the basic state pension from £84.25 to at least £114 a week, restore the link between pensions and earnings, and pay the full state pension equally to all men and women from April 2006.
Pensioners attending the rally in London on Saturday will be able to move on afterwards to the anti-war march.
Rally 11am, Saturday 18 March at the TUC, Great Russell Street, London