Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pension strikers should go beyond resistance

Whatever the Murdoch press may say ("Union leaders are off their heads" – The Sun) it is pressure from members, rather than the not-so-steely resolve of union bosses, that forced the TUC to act over pensions.

Finally, they had to do something to express the anger of public sector workers whose living standards have been cut to the bone and who have seen jobs cut by 110,000 in less than a year, with more to come.

Workers from 14 unions – including local government workers, nurses, care workers, civil servants, teachers, prison officers and firefighters – are planning co-ordinated action on pensions in the biggest joint union mobilisation since the "winter of discontent" in 1978/79.

Actions will range from a one-day strike on November 30, involving around 3 million people, to lunchtime meetings, rallies and joint events with community groups, service users and private sector workers.

Throughout New Labour, the major unions convinced members to accept sub-inflation pay rises, making many reliant on tax credits – which have now been cut. They stood by while services were contracted out, and both the public and private sectors cut pensions for new entrants.

Even now, union bosses pray the Coalition government will save them from acting. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: "Hopefully the government will see the anger and perhaps take a step back, be a little bit more flexible and less intransigent."

He wishes! But there IS no flexibility and the government is ENTIRELY intransigent. The attack on pensions is driven by the economic and financial crisis. Without cutting pensions the Coalition can't eliminate the deficit.

And as this bankers' government knows, the market will punish any country going soft on cuts. Nick Clegg explained: "Markets have stopped believing that all European governments can service their debts. We simply cannot afford to let that happen to us too."

As the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, Patrick Roach, said: "The attack on pensions is only one element of the assault on ordinary working people, on the public sector and on the welfare state. Be in no doubt – we are in the midst of a perfect storm. A perfect storm of assaults on pay, on jobs, on rights at work, as well as on pensions."

But the lesson from the perfect storms in Greece, Ireland and Italy is that one-day strikes do not force governments caught in the gravest global crisis in capitalism’s history to change course. The big question is what follows?

Why wait for negotiations which are a total fraud? Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, announced the detail of the pension cuts back in June and nothing has changed since then.

If ever there was a time to defy the anti-union laws, it is now. Ballots are costly, time-consuming, open to endless legal challenges and give the government and their pet media in the BBC and newspapers, the initiative.

Better to just call members out now and save the cash for strike pay. All the unions, including those like the rail union RMT who are not directly involved, should call an indefinite strike to bring down the Coalition.

RMT leader Bob Crow told the TUC Congress that forms of civil disobedience beyond strikes would be necessary, uniting unions with others fighting to defend jobs and services. This is good but cannot be more protest.

At the end of the day, we need to find a way to go BEYOND resistance to a political solution. Otherwise what are we fighting for? To put a Milliband-led Labour, pro-capitalist government in office? No thank you!

This solution can be developed in the course of building People's Assemblies in every community, where union members unite with others – especially those in the private sector – not only to co-ordinate support for strikes and other actions, but also start building an alternative democracy.

Rejecting a state committed to the power of banks and corporations, they can plan a transfer of economic and political power into the hands of the people. Looked at in this way, November 30 can be a springboard to a real social transformation.

Penny Cole

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