At the first whiff of grapeshot, the right-wing leaders of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), history will show, turned and ran straight into the arms of the ConDem coalition over cuts to public sector pensions.
Yesterday the TUC ruled out any further co-ordinated industrial action along the lines of the November 30 strike which brought two million public sector workers out on to the streets.
A fear of what a repeat of this action could lead to was undoubtedly instrumental in the decision of the TUC’s public sector liaison group to block calls for more strikes and, instead, to seek a deal with the government through further negotiations.
Last year, Derek Prentis, secretary of the million-strong Unison union, was making firebrand speeches at his conference and got the backing to hold a strike ballot. As one suspected, it was hot air and no substance.
Prentis, supported by TUC secretary Brendan Barber, saw November 30 as something to get out of the way before making a deal on the terms set out by the government. This will mean higher contributions, working longer and reduced pensions on retirement.
Other unions, representing another one million teachers, civil servants, local government and health workers, have declined to sign up to the general framework agreement announced by the government just before Christmas.
Most are willing to resume negotiations but one, the civil service PCS union, doesn’t even have that opportunity. It has been excluded from future talks because of its outright rejection of the “agreement”.
PCS's national executive committee yesterday unanimously reaffirmed the rejection of the government’s plans to increase contributions from April, link the retirement age to the state pension which is rising to 68, and impose a switch in indexation that means a cut in the value of pensions of around 15% to 20%.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "We will continue to call for proper negotiations on the key issues of paying more and working longer for less.” The PCS will try and work separately with other unions holding out to organise more strikes.
Behind the split in union ranks, which will gladden the government no end, is undoubtedly the hand of Labour. The party distanced itself from the November 30 strike and wants no repeat. Prentis, who has refused to support action against spending cuts by local, often Labour-led, councils, would not have needed much persuasion.
It remains to be seen whether other Labour-affiliated unions like Unite take their resistance much further. Don’t put your money on it. Their aim is to wait until the next scheduled general election in 2015 (!) and hope that Labour is re-elected in the forlorn hope of a few favours returned. With Ed Miliband accepting that further spending cuts will have to be made and planning Labour’s very own austerity package, public sector pensions will stay under siege.
Ultimately, the TUC bureaucrats fear the consequences of the crisis of capitalism which is driving the government’s attack on the public sector. They hope that by appeasing the ConDems, ministers will back off. This is an illusion. As outright recession becomes a real possibility, the government is in no position to weaken its resolve, especially as it will have to borrow more not less on the international money markets.
The decision of the PCS to lead further resistance is welcome but it is in a position to go further. Politically, there are no solutions to hand, with a ConDemLab coalition taking shape, while the economy’s woes are revealed as a crisis of the system itself. By sponsoring a conference to initiate a discussion on creating political and economic alternatives the PCS could make a real contribution to the struggles ahead.