On Tuesday 6 June the rail unions RMT and TSSA will report the results of their ballots for industrial action over pensions. Their demands, covering all railworkers outside the London Underground, are for pensions to be maintained, worker contributions limited to 10.56%, the Railway Pension Scheme to be open to all railworkers, and the Scheme to be simplified into three sections in place of the over 100 sections which have proliferated since privatisation.
Unlike other public service unions, the rail unions are clear in rejecting any “two-tier” deal which would protect existing workers at the expense of new workers.
The RMT executive has declared that proposals for a “commission” — one representative each from the union side and the employers’ side, and an “independent” chair, to study the Scheme — are not sufficient to resolve the dispute. 17 rail employers out of 66 have expressed interest in the “commission” proposal — but it is not clear that the employers would be bound by the commission; “independent” chairs are usually bosses' representatives in disguise; choosing one rep to represent all the different unions would be difficult; and anyway the “commission” might very well just sit and talk while already-existing deadlines pass and the employers impose worse terms unilaterally.
So the case for industrial action remains strong. RMT and TSSA, especially through the signalboxes and the track power control rooms, have the power to stop the network, even though the main drivers' union, ASLEF, has deserted the rail unions' united front.
ASLEF has made some sort of separate deal (it's not clear what) with some Train Operating Companies (it's not clear which). ASLEF leaders have given no information to their members beyond a cryptic letter dated 18 May: “It was the view of the ASLEF Executive Committee that each proposal should be considered on its merits. It was never the intention of your Executive Committee to use this campaign as a charter for a national dispute regardless of the consequences to you the membership. We do not believe that it is in ASLEF members’ best interests to allow the ‘default position’ to be imposed which would mean escalating pensions contributions as of 1st July 2006, when an acceptable package to resolve the situation has been delivered.
We believe that our members’ interests are best protected when a scheme is reopened to new entrants. We have achieved this in one train operator which goes against the current national flow outside the rail industry where some 70% of schemes are now closed to new entrants. Should that opportunity have been rejected on the basis of the need for a national industry-wide dispute? We do not believe so.
Many of the Train and Freight Operators have met ASLEF’s demands. We will not shy away from confronting those employers who fail to meet our aspirations when the need arises. The streamlining of the Railways Pensions Schemes... we will continue to progress... through appropriate channels...”
The National Union of Teachers is currently “consulting” its members on the new pension scheme, for new entrants from June 2007, negotiated under the “two-tier” framework agreed last October by the main public service unions to protect existing workers’ pensions at the price of an increased pension age for new starts.
NUT conference at Easter voted to require a special conference on the new scheme, but NUT Executive voted (with 13 against) to ignore that conference decision and instead do the postal “consultation”, which closes on 15 June.
The NUT leadership trumpets various improvements included in the deal — which are said to add up to enabling new entrants after June 2007 to get the same benefits as the existing scheme by age 62.5. But:
• Employees’ contributions increase (in both old and new schemes) by 0.4%.
• Provision for early retirement through ill-health is worsened, including for those in the old scheme.
• The union agrees for all future time to a ceiling on employers’ contributions of 14%.
AWL teachers are campaigning to reject the new scheme.
New pension schemes for new entrants are also due to be negotiated in the civil service and in health.
In the civil service, the PCS union Executive has seen an outline of a proposed new scheme, but precise details are not likely to come before the PCS conference starting on 7 June in Brighton, and a membership ballot on it possibly not until September.
The new scheme due to start from April 2007. It looks like it will be a “career average” scheme, with of course a normal pension age of 65.
In the health service, the main union, Unison, has made no information available yet other than that negotiations are continuing — although the new scheme is due to be implemented there earlier than for teachers and civil service — in fact, this month, June 2006.
The Local Government Service Group Executive of the biggest council workers’ union, Unison, meets on 8 June to discuss further industrial action over pensions.
The Government has offered to preserve retirement at 60 on full pension for existing pension-scheme members aged 50.5 and above.
Unfortunately, the unions had tacitly agreed to a higher pension age (65) for new workers even before they began action, on 28 March (then quickly halting it to provide “a better atmosphere” for negotiations), and reduced their demands to protection for existing scheme members. Will they now retreat further, to settle for no more than protection for the oldest existing scheme members?
If the Executive on 8 June does not restart action, then branches will submit emergency motions for Unison’s Local Government Conference on 18-19 June. AWL and others will also call for Unison to drop its support for a two-tier pension scheme, and instead re-launch its campaign as a principled fight for the right to retire at 60 on a full pension for all council workers.