PCS, pensions and grassroots action

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Mark Serwotka at Glastonbury's Leftfield

Civil Service pension cuts have now been implemented and we are hurtling towards pay negotiations as well as losing jobs by the thousands. Most other public sector unions are in a similar position – NHS workers face mass privatisation as do teachers, and councils are shedding staff on a huge scale. Rotherham council cut a thousand jobs over the last two years and is now axing another two hundred, over four hundred nursing post are going at Leeds Teaching Hospital and only six per cent of the cuts having been implemented.

Back on 30 November we the biggest strike for decades, supported by the TUC and with picket lines in every town and city. Hundreds of thousands of us marched through the streets demanding an end to cuts. We posed a serious threat to the government, and despite all that the fight against pensions is in disarray. From PCS members asking whether Unison are coming out with us to Unison members asking why, when they voted to reject the government’s pension offer, they aren’t striking, there is confusion and disillusionment in the public sector unions.

The government’s offer is a joke – they are still insisting that we work longer, pay more and get less because they want to make us pay for the capitalist crisis. However, a number of union leaders desperately want their members to accept that offer and the rest are scared of launching a serious strike without the coalition of two million workers we had back on 30 November.

As a PCS member I want to take a serious look at the strategy of the PCS leadership to save our jobs, pay and pensions, which peaked on 30 November 2011 and has meant no strikes between then and 10 May and even included aborting a strike on 28 March, leaving London teachers and lecturers to fight alone.

The PCS leadership say they intended to try and get the biggest strike possible, first starting with numbers and then later going from one-day protest strikes to more serious strikes a later date.

They started talking to other unions to see who would agree to ballot over pensions and brought together a coalition of unions that brought out 750,000 public sector workers on 30 June 2011. They banked, rightly, on the idea that a strike by some teachers unions would put pressure on the others to ballot for action, and that a strike by some public sector workers in unions like PCS and UCU would put pressure on Unison and Unite to join in. After a fight at the 2011 Trade Union Congress, a TUC campaign on pensions was launched and the coalition of unions that brought out two million workers on 30 November was born.

But the life of this coalition was cut short in December when a number of unions, including Unison, signed up to the government’s “Heads of Agreement” i.e. that workers should work longer, pay more and get less of a pension. At the Left Unity Pensions Conference in January, Mark Serwotka (PCS General Secretary) talked about putting pressure on the public sector unions at the TUC and if this didn’t work then forming a “coalition of the willing” that would launch “serious” strike action on pensions.

Since then, PCS balloted its membership with the proposal of a strike on 28th March with other unions and then cancelled that strike when the “right” unions refused to take part, even though the membership voted to strike and even though the NUT and UCU were striking in London!

We are taking a day’s action on 10 May alongside the UCU and Unite and it’s expected that half a million of us will be out that day. Clearly behind this were further attempts to persuade and pressure other union leaders into taking action, including a hope that the NUT conference would vote for action. It did, but the NUT leadership has refused to implement that decision. Unison Health members have voted to reject the government’s pensions offer, but their leaders have used the excuse of a low turnout and a close result to get out of calling further strikes – they won’t accept the government’s offer … but won’t fight for a better one either.

If the strategy was really to use a combination of pressure from above and below – from our union leaders talking to other union leaders and their members witnessing other unions fighting to save pensions and wanting to join in – then it worked … for a little while.
The problem is that the union leaders that didn’t want to fight were always looking for a way out and the PCS strategy couldn’t muster enough pressure to stop these leaders selling out at the earliest opportunity.

It comes down to a question of power in the unions – the leaders have it and the members kept well away from it. The only way that unions like Unison and NUT can now be brought back into the strikes is through members of those unions organising to increase the pressure on their leaders, and at the same time organising the strikes themselves.

We need rank and file organisations in all the public sector unions if we are to win the pensions battle. The Sparks organised one in their union, Unite, when their leaders wouldn’t ballot for a strike – they organised their own strikes and protests, they lobbied and forced their union to organise a ballot and elected a rank and file committee to co-ordinate all this … and they won.

If the PCS leadership, and especially the members of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party within that leadership, want to defend our pensions, jobs and pay then they need to be looking to this sort of pressure and organisation rather than relying on debates behind closed doors with the leaders and spontaneous militancy from the members.

Mark Serwotka was on Question Time on Thursday night. He could demanded there and then, with millions watching, that all the public sector unions defend their members’ interests and bring them out on strike on 10 May. He could have electrified the debate by calling on live TV for all the members of all the unions to come out on 10 May, without their leaders if they won’t fight. To say this would have pissed a few people off would be an understatement, but when we face the worst austerity since the Second World War then our leaders simply have to do what is necessary to defend us or else step aside.

It’s unlikely that the current PCS leadership will decide to start placing demands on the leaderships of other unions, let alone call on their members to act over the heads of the leaders. Nor are they likely to go beyond one-day strikes with months of waiting in between.
NUT members at their recent conference met in their hundreds to discuss an alternative strategy to fight the cuts, and organised to try and get a strike on 10 May. Their motion was ruled out of order, but now they are taking the next step and meeting in June to discuss how to take forward the pensions strike and other dispute. This meeting could form an alternative leadership in the union – a rank and file movement based on members’ democratic control of the union. PCS members and activists need to do the same if we want a new strategy to fight the cuts: one that can win.

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2 Comments

  1. Kirstie
    May 7, 2012 at 2:07 pm · Reply

    Many NUT members are livid at the behaviour of our Exec and the retreat that is taking place. We should have been out on the 10 May. It’s insane that hundreds of thousands of workers are out on strike and teachers will be working that day. In Greenwich we are trying to organise a delegation of reps to be released from school so that we can visit picket lines, take part in the demo and begin to make contact with workers in the borough from UNITE, UCU and PCS. We are very far at the moment from being able to organise unofficial walkouts but this is where we have to be looking. The leadership of all the unions is not prepared to take on the government. They never will in my opinion. So we have to start building from below. This is no easy task and we are literally starting from the beginning.

    All the left currents have be tied to a strategy of winning positions in the apparatus. We need to build the trust across workplaces and regions so that when a call is put out to take action it means something.

    To build that trust we have to start doing it now. The conference on 16 June in Liverpool called by NUT Associations angry at the Exec retreat is a hopeful start.

  2. May 8, 2012 at 9:58 am · Reply

    Well said Kirstie. NUT leaders were always boasting about being in the vanguard of the pensions struggle but not anymore. At a time when when teachers have just been clobbered in their pay packets, when anger has shot up, and when hundreds of thousands of workers on strike this thursday, our union has withdrawn from the field of battle. Nothing like losing the momentum after a brilliant strike and demo in London on March 28. Will our leaders dare call a strike in June? Looking forward to the Liverpool conference despite it being a bit late in the term. Our Association Sandwell NUT will be sending delegates. We must have delegates there really pushing for a new grass roots rank and file movement committed to organising unofficial walkouts when our leaders refuse to act. The Sparks were able to do that and that’s why the bosses and union leaders ran scared.

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