|Pensions: will UNISON fight?|
|Magazine - Trade Unions|
|Saturday, 24 September 2011 16:44|
George Binette, Camden UNISON Branch Secretary (personal capacity), examines the build-up to a possible general strike across the public sector.
Little more than three months after the TUC’s mammoth “march for the alternative”, up to 30,000 civil servants, lecturers and teachers took to the capital’s streets on a Thursday afternoon. It was the culmination of one day of co-ordinated strike action across four unions involving hundreds of thousands nationally.
The immediate trigger for the action on 30th June was the Government’s assault on public service workers’ pension schemes in the wake of the 2010 report authored by the New Labour peer Lord Hutton. For many of those marching, however, the pensions issue was the lightning rod, conducting much deeper anger about cuts to jobs and services and the threat to the very future of social welfare provision.
Crucially, though, one very large union – UNISON, with its membership heavily concentrated among public sector workers who are bearing the brunt of the current government attacks – was absent from the action on 30th June. While Camden branch’s UNISON banner appeared on the 30th June demonstration, I could count only four others on the day in a city where UNISON, a union claiming more than 1.3 million members nationally, has over 120 branches.
In the run up to 30th June, many ordinary members of my branch asked their branch committee members if UNISON would be striking and when told “no” asked “why not?”. Since then, concern has been growing about the absence of any date for the start of ballots over the critical issue of pensions. On this, unified action across many unions and component parts of the public sector is still possible – even within the narrow confines of the Tory anti-union laws, left intact after 13 years of New Labour in Downing Street.
The announcement emerging out of the first meeting of UNISON’s newly elected National Executive in early July heightened anxiety among activists. It became clear that General Secretary Dave Prentis was preparing to move to negotiations with the Government about the individual schemes without any concessions from them around crucial issues such as the increase in the retirement age, the move to a career average scheme with a much worse accrual rate, the switch to the less favourable Consumer Price Index for annual uprating and the abolition of the fair deal for pensions policy, which is undoubtedly designed to accelerate the privatisation of public services.
After sabre-rattling rhetoric from Dave Prentis before UNISON’s 2011 conference, some members became cynical and dispirited after a summer of inertia. Then, word suddenly emerged on 8th September of emergency meetings of the union’s service group executives for health (21st September) and local government (16th September). Indications are that both executives will be asked to authorise national ballots for strike action, though there is as yet no clarity about the likely timetable or the wording of ballot questions.
In the wake of this news, word spread rapidly by text, Twitter and Facebook of the renewed possibility of cross-union co-ordination that might deliver something approximating a public sector general strike. Experience, however, should teach activists at the base of UNISON (or any other union) that they cannot afford to sit idly by and expect national leaderships to translate the promising words of press releases into effective action.
Following a very well-attended fringe meeting on the pensions dispute at this June’s UNISON national conference, which attracted support from more than 30 branches, Camden, Kirklees and Tower Hamlets local government branches agreed to issue a call for another branch-based meeting on 24th September. The meeting has no official standing and could not involve the expenditure of UNISON branch funds, but it offered branch level activists the opportunity to discuss boosting union density and building for the largest possible Yes votes in forthcoming ballots. It also looked at requisitioning a special local government service group conference in order to have the widest possible democratic debate about the conduct of the pensions dispute and the outline of any eventual settlement.
|Last Updated on Saturday, 24 September 2011 16:49|