Only a rank-and-file revolt in defence of their pension rights stands between leaders of most public sector trade unions and what will surely rank near the top of a long list of betrayals.
With the honourable except of Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS civil servants’ union, virtually every other official – leader is definitely the wrong term in this context – signalled in one way or another the end of the short-lived campaign over pensions.
They almost fell over themselves to meet a pre-Christmas deadline set by the ConDem coalition to reach a negotiated settlement covering more than two million local government workers, NHS staff, teachers, lecturers and civil servants.
Whatever agreement is reached, it will inevitably cut further into the living standards of public sector workers who are already the victims of a government-imposed pay freeze (which union officials, with their own fat pensions preserved in aspic, have meekly accepted).
On the eve of the talks, the government announced that it would unilaterally impose higher pension contributions on teachers and civil servants. Most civil servants and teachers will pay an extra 0.6-2.4% from April. Did the teaching unions walk away in the face of such a provocation? Not at all.
The only outright opposition yesterday came from the PCS which said it had rejected “the government’s latest attempt to force public servants to pay more and work longer for less in retirement”. It was promptly excluded from further talks.
And so the apparent unity of the 29 unions who staged a one-day strike of at least 1.5 million workers less than a month ago was fragmented at a stroke. The government’s strategy of divide and rule proved more successful than this feeble coalition could ever have imagined.
At a meeting at the Trades Union Congress headquarters, general secretary Brendan Barber, who has been in secret talks with the government throughout, stressed that further industrial action was off the table and negotiations would resume in the new year.
“We have reached a stage where the emphasis in most cases is in giving active consideration to the new proposals that have emerged rather than considering the prospect of further industrial action.” The proposals include the abandonment of the final salary basis for pensions in favour of career average salaries.
To seek a negotiated settlement after giving it everything you’ve got is honourable; to run up the white flag with a hardly a short fired is nothing short of cowardice in the face of an enemy that is waging open class warfare.
For all the fiery talk of general secretary Dave Prentis, the leader of Unison, it was predictably hot air. The union’s head of health, Christina McAnea, admitted that “we always knew this would be a damage limitation exercise aimed at reducing the worst impacts of the government's pension changes."
The TUC and union bureaucrats have implicitly accepted the principal reason for the attack on pensions – the government’s budget deficit that is the result of a recession precipitated by capitalism’s financial meltdown.
Public sector workers are, in effect, being told to pay for the crisis through higher contributions and worse pensions. Behind the scenes, the leadership of the Labour Party has worked might and main to get unions to abandon further strikes and do a deal with a government.
The last thing Ed Miliband wanted was a long-running strike campaign that could have fatally wounded a weak and divided coalition whose policies his party barely opposes (except to demand a harder line on crime).
PCS general secretary Serwotka, urged unions to fight the changes: "We should call further industrial action in the new year because this is so unfair, we have got to stand up against it... Our message really is that those unions will have to be accountable to their members for what they do."
A campaign to reject the sell-out over pensions (and the wage freeze) has to mobilise rank-and-file anger in ways that are linked to the removal from their posts of all those involved in this shoddy surrender. In some ways, it’s a last chance to save the trade union movement from total disaster.