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From The Socialist newspaper, 25 January 2012

Public sector pensions: 'Coalition of the willing' gathering strength

Martin Powell-Davies, NUT executive, personal capacity
30 November 2011 public sector strike, photo by Paul Mattsson

30 November 2011 public sector strike, photo by Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

In the immediate aftermath of the TUC-led retreat over pensions, the 'coalition of the willing', those unions still determined to fight on, have needed time to regroup. But now that coalition is gathering strength.

Over Christmas, the danger of isolation and concerns that members might no longer be prepared to take action understandably weighed heavily on union leaders. The PCS Left Unity Conference on 7 January helped to swiftly galvanise union activists and a call was made for union leaders to meet to agree a coordinated action plan. The NUT is now convening exactly such a meeting with a number of other unions already pledged to attend.

The decision by Unite to reject the Heads of Agreement has helped bolster confidence, as has the action taken by private-sector Unilever workers in defence of their pension schemes. It now seems likely that the FBU may also need to ballot for strike action with the government apparently insistent on an unworkable scheme where firefighters work until they are 60 and pay at least 13.2% of their salary in pension contributions.

The growing confirmation of support for action in the workplace is helping to reassure union leaderships that they can securely call further strikes. NUT members have been meeting to agree motions pledging support for action as well as responding to a national email survey. Just like the BMA's separate survey of doctors, it seems likely that the results will confirm clear opposition to the deal.

Of course, nothing can be taken for granted. In the build-up to further strikes, unions need to campaign hard in every workplace and community to build the strongest support for action.

No worker can lightly lose pay but most will be willing to do so if unions show they are serious about continuing the campaign. After all, if we don't carry on the fight, we're guaranteed to be losing pay every single month in higher pension contributions.

Unions now need to agree a clear plan of coordinated action. At least a further day of national strike needs to be called before April, when the first phase of increased pension contributions is to be imposed. Unions also need to make clear that this isn't just a 'last hurrah' but part of an ongoing campaign to force the government to retreat further. It could coincide with a ballot of Unison members, giving them confidence to demand further action of their leadership as J30 did for N30.

The lecturers' union UCU executive, at its meeting on 20 January, became the latest union to formally reject the Heads of Agreement. It also proposed that a programme of coordinated rolling strike action should begin in February, with Thursday 1 March proposed as a day for national strike action.

Strikers on the 30 June 2011 (J30) public sector strike, photo by Paul Mattsson

Strikers on the 30 June 2011 (J30) public sector strike, photo by Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

This is a useful starting point for discussion between unions although the exact details may need to change - particularly as Welsh teachers have pointed out that clashing with long-prepared events for St David's Day would not be popular.

There is certainly a pressing need for the joint-union discussions to arrive at a firm date for the next coordinated action. NUT divisional secretaries from branches across England and Wales are being called to an emergency national meeting on 2 February to discuss the campaign.

Hopefully, when the PCS executive meets again on 9 February and the UCU executive on 10 February, we will all be in a position to announce a common plan of action.

While it will be important to negotiate over the dates so as to bring the strongest possible alliance together, it would be a mistake to postpone a decision in order to try and bring unions like Unison and GMB on board at this stage. A strong campaign is being waged inside health and local government unions in opposition to the 'Heads of Agreement' but, even if it eventually succeeds, it will be several months before these unions could be brought back into action.

Joint-union staff meetings and local trades councils should organise debates so that the real facts about the Heads of Agreement can be explained - so that everyone understands that it means 'pay more, get less and retire older'.

However, a significant joint-union strike in March, even if on a smaller scale than November, will be the best way to support those arguing to reverse the position of unions who have signed up to the shabby 'deal'.

Above all, that united action will send a clear signal to the government that they still face strong and determined opposition to their pensions robbery.

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