Organisation, not hot air

In addition to its programme of shedding 104,000 civil servants, the government is now preparing a full-scale assault on public sector pensions. Whilst there are differences in the pension schemes currently in place in various government departments, the overall effect of the proposals will be to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65, increase pension contributions, do away with final salary schemes and decrease benefits - in certain cases by as much as 30%. It is a pay cut now and later. The attack takes other forms too - the proposals are particularly bad for women and for those who may have to retire early through ill health. This is all part of a generalised onslaught against the hard-won rights and working conditions of workers not only in Britain, but also across Europe. Here, though, pension provision is the worst in Europe. According to TUC figures, as a proportion of GDP, British pensions are less than half the European average. Quite frankly, at the beginning of the 21st century the working class ought to be demanding greatly improved pension provisions. Not defending the measly gains made by past generations. As our draft programme says, "People deserve a secure, dignified and comfortable old age. The needs of the elderly should be met fully by the state and should be available by right." Pensions should be set at a level where people can live a full life. We also say that, while everyone should have the right to retire at 60, there should be no "compulsory retirement" (Draft programme section 3.12). The government has been careful not to try and force through its 'reforms' across every sector all at once. Interestingly, changes to the local government scheme have been brought forward a year. It is in local councils, particularly in Unison, that the left is most numerous. Giving them less time to organise seems a good bet for Blair. It is also likely that the lessons of the failed (from the unions' point of view) London weighting dispute were not lost on the government. Rather than fearing the left's strength, this seems to be a tactic to deal with it where it is best organised before seeing off the opposition elsewhere. The Warwick agreement last July between the government and the big unions constituted a limp promise of a 'radical third term' for Blair - in reality a list of 56 meagre crumbs (including pensions) paid for dearly in advance. Even though there was and is little prospect of a Labour defeat, the slightest hint of causing trouble for Labour is seemingly sufficient to bring union general secretaries to their knees (even if they protest a bit while genuflecting). However, pensions are potentially a very hot political potato. At the Trade Union Congress in September, and while the big unions were still crowing about Warwick, Brendan Barber was moved to speak about strike action to defend current schemes. He was aware that even the crumbs might not be delivered. At a subsequent TUC conference on December 6, called to highlight the failures of current pension schemes for women, union leaders issued warnings of a possible action across the whole public sector, involving up to two million workers prior to the general election. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka led the initiative with a call for a "coordinated response from public sector unions in the form of a one-day strike, unless the government is prepared to think again". Dave Prentis, perhaps with an eye on his own re-election in the forthcoming Unison general secretary poll, also came out with some suitably militant hot air: "This is a position that Unison cannot accept and will oppose. It will lead to conflict between Unison and the government." By mid-December unions that were not already mandated to take strike action over pension rights began organising 'indicative' ballots. This, of course, is not only a way of gauging the strength of feeling amongst the membership, but is also a means of acting tough in the hope of getting a hearing from the government. On December 13 union leaders (from PCS, Unison, TGWU, FBU, GMB, Amicus, NUT, Natfhe and the senior civil service managers union, FDA) met TUC pensions experts. The meeting was on the initiative of Serwotka and was to coordinate opposition to the government's plans. Prior to the TUC discussion union leaders met with Gordon Brown who, predictably, would not budge. In response to this rebuff the strategy agreed was to apply pressure for talks with government and announce at a later date a campaign to win support for the unions' case. In a letter, dated December 20, leaked to The Guardian, Labour Party chair Ian McCartney issued a threat of his own. Addressing Tony Dubbins, co-chair of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, he raises the hoary old chestnut of damage to Labour's election prospects. McCartney, evidently confident of the unions' weakness and slavish political deference, does not hide the fact that it is government policy to end the differential whereby private sector workers are often paid less for similar work than those in the public sector. Bluntly, this means a combination of pay cuts to the public sector and more privatisation. All McCartney can offer by way of consolation is twaddle about "an improved spirit of partnership" and some altogether vague promises about implementing Warwick - "but only if Labour wins the historic third term we all cherish" (The Guardian January 12). Following publication of government proposals on the NHS pension scheme on January 10, Prentis wrote to all Labour MPs suggesting that widespread anger among union members would be likely to damage the Labour Party in the run-up to the general election. He also urged them to lobby government demanding the suspension of the proposals. However, an early day motion to annul the local government pension scheme amendments has at the time of writing attracted only nine signatories. On January 11 the TUC agreed a national day of action for Friday February 18. It has been made clear that this will not involve industrial action. Instead, lobbying MPs, contacting the media and generally raising awareness is the order of the day. The indicative polls currently underway may eventually lead to ballots for a coordinated one-day strike - March 26 is being talked about. For now, though, the TUC and union leaders are intent on applying pressure to get the government to either suspend or defer its proposals and start talking. It is clear that the pension's 'fight' is very much under the control of top union bureaucrats, and that they might easily succumb in the months before the general election to pressure from New Labour to hold off - with the help of a crumb or two perhaps. The priority for most of them is a, supposedly radical, third term for Labour. Union members' rights are apparently subordinate to that overriding concern. Obviously, where possible unofficial strikes must be organised for February 18, that would very much upset the applecart and help save what could turn out to be a damp squib. It is not simply a case of crap leaders though. From their perspective there is perfect logic to the way they behave. After the strategic defeats of the 1980s they face no significant rank and file organisation and therefore pressure or control from below. Whilst token one-day strikes are easily achieved, a sustained battle is quite another matter. Those disputes that do occur are run top-down - union officials who have been leading on pensions with what they have available to them - researchers, press officers and lobbying. There is as yet no serious left alternative to Labour (Scotland is no exception). Various attempts have either failed at the first hurdle or have adopted politics which are hopelessly compromised. We need to look at the whole picture in which union leaders are painted in such weak colours. We at least need to balance criticism of them with an appreciation of the circumstances in which they operate, and with some much needed self-criticism when it comes to the revolutionary left. In the past organising the rank and file was largely the domain of the 'official' Communist Party - either directly or through united fronts. Despite its long, opportunist and debilitating decline it still had a real connection to the working class even in the late 1970s. When the CPGB finally imploded a political and organisational vacuum was left that has not been filled. Instead we have a collection of fractious sects that either see themselves as 'the revolutionary party', wish to rebuild failed social democracy or have succumbed to populism. Left response * The Socialist Workers Party makes its usual garish calls for "all-out" unofficial action without any thought of a strategy to make that possible, or of the underlying reality of a fragmented and uninvolved membership. The SWP has no conception of patiently educating and agitating for members to become democratically involved, of a tactful and sensible approach to building unity between unions and the tactics appropriate to each stage of the struggle. Instead, it combines deeply patronising and overly optimistic stories of this or that union action with mere exhortations - bigger, wider, more. All quantity and no quality; all form and no substance. Empty posturing. * Respect is an absolute disgrace. On its website we see a simple description of the day of action without any commitment or partisanship. It reads like an entry in a dictionary. Of course the SWP is the significant force in Respect and here we see the emptiness that comes with the SWP's version of 'unity'. * The Alliance for Workers' Liberty is a bit more sensible. In Solidarity "a civil servant" asks how real the TUC campaign will be and whether there will be strike action (January 6). The piece alludes to the potential for struggle but also the potential for a sell-out, arguing that activists should campaign for strike action, not merely exhort, and suggests a better understanding of the current state of the rank and file. * The campaigning leaflet issued by the Socialist Party in England and Wales at the end of last year provided useful factual information and background. Without being patronising, it stressed the need for unity in action and the aim of a one-day official strike after campaigning to win the arguments and the ballots. The leaflet is evidence of the SP's relatively better historical connection to the working class - built up during its period of Labour Party entrism. Unfortunately, following a good start, the SPEW stance is now refracted and diverted by calls for immediate disaffiliation from Labour. * Unison United Left has a significant SWP presence, but the lead is being taken by general secretary candidate Jon Rogers - ironically, in view of SPEW's now visceral hostility to all things Labour, he is a card-carrying member. Comrade Rogers adopts a similar strategy to that of SPEW and is for the building of a united official strike. * In its 'new year message', Workers Power recognises that a one-day strike is insufficient, but instead resorts to wishful thinking: we could resist "a whole lot more effectively if the big talkers at the top of Unison, PCS, GMB cut the talk and called a public sector-wide general strike until our pensions, pay, jobs and services were safe." In the absence of that, WP indulges in fantastic leaps of imagination about forming local councils of action. Local government workers should withdraw from electoral duties, which would cripple a May 5 poll: "We would guarantee that, come election day, not a single civil servant and not a single local government worker would work" (my emphasis). Without patient work to build a strong rank and file movement, all this is just pie in the sky. Most of these groups - partly of necessity (keeping the union machinery going while the membership stays away during a period of defeat and inaction) and partly now out of bad habit - operate over the heads of the membership. Apart from isolated areas the left substitutes itself for the rank and file and is unhealthily ensconced in the union machinery - as a left bureaucracy. No real progress can be made until an atomised and disenchanted membership is actively and democratically involved. But this requires the left getting its own act together in order to put working class unity above sectional and grouplet interests. Without a viable revolutionary party our class is disarmed. Alan Stevens