By a pcs socialist caucus member
THE annual conference of the civil service union PCS, in Brighton on 7-9 June with group (sector) conferences on 5-6 June, will debate an emergency motion from the union's Executive to "welcome" the pension agreement made earlier this year.
Pensions will be the crucial issue of the conference. PCS was central to the trade union alliance that accepted that new entrants to the civil service, the NHS and teaching will have to work five years longer in order to receive their full pension, with the pension rights of existing workers supposedly "ring-fenced". This is despite the fact that our union is the only one with a leadership dominated by self-styled revolutionary socialists, chiefly in the Socialist Party and the leading faction of the Scottish Socialist Party.
It is vital that the genuine class-struggle left is armed with the arguments to refute the PCS leadership's self-justifications.
The union argues that “we have secured lifetime protection of the pensions of all current civil and public servants...” This is a very big claim. After all, even a legal or contractual guarantee could be “revisited” if the government of the day felt so inclined - and what we have is neither, but a ministerial commitment. In essence, we are dependent on New Labour's word of honour.
Even the handful of people who still believe in New Labour's honorable intentions cannot seriously believe that a Tory government would stick to this commitment.
Under the deal, all new entrants will have to work to 65, rather than 60, to receive a full pension. Given the civil service’s staff turnover rate of about 55,000 a year, this means that within ten years the majority of workers will probably be on the new, poorer pensions terms. Thus the workforce will be divided. Why should newer, younger workers take action to defend the (relative) privileges of older staff who were not willing to fight for them to have the same rights? By accepting that new workers will get a worse deal the PCS leadership has made even “ring-fenced” arrangements much more difficult to defend.
In essence, the government has got what it wants. As Alan Johnson put it in a letter to the Guardian, the deal "means all new public sector workers will now have a pension age of 65, not 60, matching the norm in the private sector. Turnover of staff guarantees that this change quickly works it way through the system and ensures that we deliver in full the £13bn planned savings". The Economist concurred by concluding that, in effect, unions had signed up to the government’s demands for "savings" ie cuts.
For those entering the civil service after the cut-off date, each year they retire before 65 will meaning losing five percent of their pension. Thus a worker who wanted to match the current retirement age of 60 would lose a 25% of their pension!
Moreover, this will disproportionately effect lower grades, since generally in the civil service those in lower grades die younger than those in higher ones.
The problem is that the PCS leaders have the narrow, sectional agenda of trade union bureaucrats, devoid of any wider conception of working-class interests. The government's drive to push up the standard public sector retirement age to 65 is part of a more general offensive against pensions provision and the working class as a whole. The supposedly Marxist leadership of our union has sacrificed the possibility of leading a fight back on this issue to safeguarding the rights of current trade union members - and as a result has also undermined the latter.
This historic defeat - and, yes, that is what it is - was not forced on the union after a battle. It was not only accepted without a single day of industrial action, but presented to the workforce as a victory. At the same time, the collapse of PCS provided the leaders of the other public sector unions with the perfect excuse for their own unwillingness to fight.
The PCS Socialist Caucus has a clear alternative strategy on pensions. As one of our bulletins at last year's conference put it: "Currently the union is fighting separate campaigns over pensions, jobs and pay. We believe that instead of three campaigns there has to be one national campaign... Without a job having a good or bad pension does not matter; having low wages means a small pension. Many members will have to work beyond 60 (regardless of the official pension age) just to boost their pension pay out. Having higher wages means members can retire earlier. All these things are interconnected – therefore so should our campaign be".
If such a linked campaign had been fought, then we would not have been in the present situation.
The PCS leadership argue that they could not have mobilised the membership against the government’s offer. In fact they made no efforts to explain any of its downsides. One Socialist Party member of the Executive derided the idea of action to defend the rights of future workers as "airy-fairy", while Mark Serwotka claimed the demand for solidarity with future generations was an "abstract idea".
If we are to make solidarity a concrete reality, a defeat for the leadership's apologetics on pensions needs to be part of the process of developing a strategy to fight effectively on jobs and pay too. That is what Socialist Caucus exists to do.