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"Unity in action" call
HUNDREDS OF people, packed into a TUC-organised rally in defence of pensions on 16 November, heard Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union openly call for a one-day public sector general strike in the spring.
Bill Mullins reports.
The Socialist Party says:
Mark told the audience that, seeing the effect that 200,000 PCS members had coming out on strike on 5 November, they could imagine the effect of two million health workers, local government workers, teachers and civil servants out on strike together.
The potential for action across the public sector is there with the attacks on public sector pensions across the board, he warned. But there was a danger of the unions acting separately, despite all the attacks originating from the same source, the government.
The PCS is calling for the major public sector unions, hopefully led by the TUC, to have common negotiations with government over pensions. It is important that we have unity in negotiations but even more important that we have unity in action.
In Rome last year there was a million-strong march under the slogan of "defend our future. There is nothing intrinsically different between them and British workers, Mark said to massive applause.
This struggle to defend the public sector, whether it's jobs, services or pensions, has entered a new stage. All public sector trade unions now have the duty to answer the call for "unity in action" rather than let the New Labour government pick them off one by one.
Pensions crisis hits millions
RECENT FIGURES suggest that more than 12 million workers in Britain won't have enough money for a decent retirement. Both big business and the government want to shift the growing burden of providing decent pensions onto working-class people.
The bosses are desperate to exclude themselves from any responsibility for maintaining pensions - even at their current inadequate levels. And New Labour is helping big business in this quest.
Chancellor Gordon Brown told the recent CBI conference that any demands for the state to solve the pensions crisis with higher public spending could wreck the government's finances and put the economy in jeopardy. The government, he said, had no intention of taking on "additional responsibilities".
In one sentence, Brown blew out of the water the TUC general secretary's appeal for 'partnership' between government, bosses and unions to solve the pensions crisis. Moreover, a government adviser said the money they'd set aside to help workers in insolvent pension schemes will cover only a fraction of those involved. Pensions economist Ros Altman said the £20 million set aside for 65,000 people would only buy average pensions of £6,000 for only 135 people.
All the major parties, including Labour, say they want to cut the proportion of pensions coming from state money from 60p in the £ to 40p. What can this mean but that the burden will increasingly fall on the workers in work?
If this happened, it's estimated that the basic state pension would by 2020 only be worth 10% of average earnings (about £56 a week) compared to the present 20%. Young workers in their 20s today would have to increase their pension contributions tenfold to get a decent pension by retirement age.
How can young workers faced with debts arising from loans to fund their education and ever-spiralling rents and mortgages ever meet this commitment?
The government clearly aims to proceed further with its ideological drive to end the universal benefits of the welfare state while simultaneously slashing public-sector jobs and cutting public services to the bone.
The trade union movement will need to link up with pensioners, students and public-service users in a united mass campaign to save public services and ensure decent pensions for all workers.
As a first step, a one-day public-sector strike will be needed. Unions must take action over the pensions crisis and stand in solidarity with PCS union members fighting to defend their jobs and public services.
Workers must strike back
IN BOTH private and public sectors, millions now face an onslaught on pension rights not seen for decades. The only thing standing between them and their plans is the organised trade union movement including the increasingly militant pensioners' convention.
Railworkers in EWS and Rolls-Royce workers have shown by militant action, that final salary pension schemes can be retained, if the bosses know they will have a fight on their hands.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) with a left leadership including Socialist Party members, as well as leading a campaign to save jobs, also got the TUC to organise a national demo on pensions on 19 June.
The PCS put a motion to 2003 TUC congress calling for the TUC to take the lead in fighting attacks on pensions. The TUC leaders put enormous pressure on the PCS to drop its demands for action but the PCS leaders' refusal to back down led to that demonstration.
It's now time for the TUC to get off its knees and lead a fight-back. In the public sector there should be a one-day national strike to fight for decent pensions and to link up with the PCS civil servants' campaign against low pay and the threat to jobs across the entire sector.
And the TUC should unite workers in private and public sectors with a call for action across industries and companies in support of pension rights. If the TUC won't do this, then the Left leaders in the unions should be prepared to organise action themselves.
As a first step the executive committee members of all major unions organising in the public sector should organise a national meeting - a council of war - to co-ordinate their grievances on pensions and the attacks on the public sector into a one-day national strike that could shake the government in the run-up to the general election.
Trade union leaders have little influence in the Labour Party though they collectively pay millions every year to it. It's time the unions broke with Labour and began the process of launching a new mass workers' party.
New Labour has an ideological, pro-big business agenda. The unions need to abandon the idea that they can win lasting concessions from this government.
Out of a united campaign to save decent pensions, the public sector and the welfare state should come a strengthening resolve amongst organised workers and the wider working class - to create a new mass party of the working class, which will campaign for a socialist transformation of society.
Welfare state under attack
FOLLOWING THE Second World War, people reaching retirement age had some protection through the state pension. This was only secured by generations of workers struggling to bring about the welfare state.
Since the mid-1970s, however, state pensions have been continually under attack. The link with earnings was removed and its value cut; Britain's state pension has been falling behind other countries now for decades.
Workers in Britain get 37% of their working-life earnings on retirement. But in the Netherlands, workers get 70% of their working-life earnings, in Sweden it's 76% and in France 71%.
Any workers who took out occupational pensions or put money aside for their old age found themselves vulnerable as pension schemes went bust or become worthless as the stock market dwindled.
Having given Britain's elderly Europe's most insecure old age, the bosses and the government now want to throw millions of working-class people into a retirement of even greater uncertainty and poverty. That's if people get the chance to retire at all - many workers may have to 'work until they drop' to pay their bills.
Labour ministers or big business fat cats, however, make sure they don't go short! MPs have given themselves over-generous increases in pension entitlement. And the average annual accrued pension for a FTSE 100 director is now almost £170,000 - 26 times the average annual occupational pension.
Bosses' schemes hit workers
PRIVATE-SECTOR employers abandoned their responsibility to their workforce first, massively undermining schemes which linked pensions to a worker's final year's salary.
Since 1995 over two million workers in companies with these schemes have seen their chances of a decent final salary pension disappear - despite workers paying in for decades. Some companies shut schemes altogether, leaving workers penniless. Others didn't let new starters join Final Salary Schemes, thereby creating a second class of pensioners.
Staggering figures from the TUC show private-sector employers robbed over £20 billion from workers' pensions between 1987 and 2003 by taking a 'contributions holiday' and creaming off the surplus whilst the stock market was on the up.
As the shares boom ended, many final salary schemes were axed altogether. Bosses saved on average £4,000 per worker each year by this sleight of hand. Profits in these companies shot up £4 billion after employers cut their own contributions to the schemes.
Now, the government is threatening millions of public-sector workers' pension rights. The new Green Paper for 'consultation' suggests that government workers (including teachers) could have to work another five or ten years just to gain the same pension levels as they have now. The package also threatens to end final salary schemes in the public sector.
Civil service workers are fighting back against the government's announcement that workers directly employed by them will in future have to work till they're 65 before they can draw the full civil service pension. This "work till you drop" attitude angers workers and was one of the reasons for them taking strike action recently.
The Socialist Party says:
- No to 'work till you drop'
- Restore the link between pensions and earnings
- Give back all that has been taken away to those who paid in to final salary schemes
- Restore to the private-sector pension funds the money robbed from them by the bosses.
- Unite the struggles for decent pensions
- For a one-day public-sector strike to defend pension rights and against low pay and attacks on jobs
In The Socialist 20 November 2004:
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