Unions representing over 800,000 teachers, lecturers and civil servants are set to take national strike action on 30 June against Government plans to radically attack their pensions.
The government has already switched the measure for annual increases for public sector pensions from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the generally lower rate, the Consumer Price Index (CPI). A pension currently worth £10,000 a year will, by 2016, be worth £800 less than it would be on RPI.
The government also looks set to increase the level of contributions and raising the retirement eligibility age. For teachers this would mean an increase in contributions from 6.4% to 9.8% and an increase in retirement age from 60/65 (pre/post 2007) to 68.
Lecturers in further and higher education belonging to the same pension scheme as teachers will be similarly affected.
Low-paid civil servants organised by the PCS have, an average, a much lower annual pension of only £4,200, but will also be expected to pay higher contributions and retire later.
United action on pensions makes sound industrial sense: if ballots are successful across the unions then industrial cannot easily be ignored.
However there are problems. Each union operates at a different tempo and coordinated action may end up being dictated by the tempo of the slowest and least militant union.
A serious counter-attack on pensions will require more than a “one-off” day of united action.
Unfortunately, the “model” of trade union militancy over the past decade has been the strike activity of PCS — a one day strike followed by another one day strike, many months later, and then petering-out with very little won.
As things stand it looks likely that only one day of action will take place between now and the autumn. Efforts at the NUT conference at Easter to win a commitment to sustained, selective action in groups of schools was kept off conference floor by a bungling and sectarian left.
Cross-union, united action between the NUT, ATL, UCU and PCS is positive but it is only a start. These unions represent a small minority of trade union members in the public sector.
If the action does not spread to the other major teachers union (the NASUWT) and to Unison, Unite and GMB members in the public sector, then our class will be struggling with only a portion of its strength. These unions will only take action with considerable pressure from below — members need to see other public sector unions fighting and winning.
UCU has signalled its intention to take action against the massive proposed cuts in courses and jobs. Teachers face attacks on other issues — from workload to academies. None of these things will be tackled by the pension ballot alone.
In Nottinghamshire, Tower Hamlets and Camden, teachers and public sector workers have taken action against local cuts. That is good, but not enough. National attacks should be met by national action.
Teacher unions must organise for more action beyond one day of strikes. We need a commitment to open the new school year with further, named strike days.
Unions should work towards united national action across all public sector unions, but an individual union should not hold off on action before this happens.
Strike committees with representation from all the unions taking action should be formed to ensure a constant flow of information, support and accountability. Representatives from other unions should attend, and they should be involved in spreading solidarity and support.
Socialists in the trade unions need to fight on issues of organisation, democracy and politics in our movement: greater accountability from the union leaderships, greater rank-and-file control over disputes and for political ideas and action from the unions to take on both the Tory/Liberal government and the Labour Party.
A winning strategy will cause enormous disruption to the government and they will be politically neutered.
Our movement should use its size, energy and organisation to fight for a workers’ government — one that represents our interests and which depends on our class for its legitimacy — to replace the cutting, privatising, pro-capitalist and anti-working class Tory/Liberal coalition.