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Proletarian issue 10 (February 2006)
Unions’ response to pension crisis
The issue of pensions has become an unavoidable, if unwanted, bone of contention between the various trade union leaderships and the Labour government.
Trade union members are demanding action against the attacks that are either taking place or are planned upon their deferred wages. That trade union leaders are finding it harder and harder to sell the Labour Party to their membership is shown by the extremely poor vote that elected the present government, even after union leaders went to the workers holding the Warwick agreement (vague promises to do nothing would be a better description of what they carried) and still couldn’t rouse many to vote Labour. In fact, most of those who did vote Labour did so reluctantly, seeing (quite correctly) no difference between the three main parties, but as yet seeing no real alternative to bourgeois politics.

The genuine anger and willingness to fight of many workers on the issue of pension cuts will in some cases manifest itself in strikes etc, but in many cases it is likely to be headed off by union leaders under the cover of vague ‘agreements’ or simply by putting the question to workers in such a manner as to guarantee no further action.

The pensions of firefighters are to be ‘altered’ without even the charade of consultation with their union, leading to later retirement ages and lower benefits in the pension and a probable vote for industrial action in the union. However, many firefighters now have low expectations of their union leadership.

Scottish Power, the private energy company, has announced plans to end final salary pensions for new employees from April, and Amicus has vowed to oppose this and consult its members on what action they want to take. While this sounds like fighting talk from the leadership, ‘opposition’ does not guarantee that the union will put up a serious fight, and ‘consulting the membership on what action they want to take’ usually involves putting the case for action very negatively and then blaming lack of grassroots support for action when the no vote comes in. It must be remembered that those voting will not yet be losing their final salary pension, and this is bound to be stressed to them by their leaders. By the time their own pension is under attack, they may well find themselves working side by side with a lot of people on lesser pensions who will, no doubt, fail to see the need to support them. Such are the devices used to split workforces, and such is the complicity of many union leaders in that act.

TGWU shop stewards within the Co-op are seeking formal authority for a strike ballot from their union after the company revealed plans to end their final salary pension scheme. USDAW, the union with the largest membership by far among Co-op workers, has been silent on this issue, but then with a paid official on the board of directors we must assume they knew about the move in advance. USDAW has been vocal in the case of Arcadia Fashions however, which has told its staff that they must work until 65 and increase their contributions by 2 percent to stop their payout falling below that currently predicted. The union has publicly demanded an explanation from Arcadia boss Philip Green, and has written to the company expressing ‘deep concerns’.

British Airways, meanwhile, has announced plans to make employees pay for a £1.4bn deficit in one of its pensions schemes by not only raising employees’ contributions, but also raising the retirement age and possibly restricting pensionable pay. The pilot’s union, BALPA, has announced that it is prepared to take any action necessary to fight the move; it is currently assembling a top team of accountants and advisors to meet with employers.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the pensions of thousands of public-sector workers are under threat as the Scottish Executive plans to abolish the right to early retirement under certain conditions (Rule 85). The plan was released in an answer to a question in the Scottish Parliament, and now the GMB has decided to ballot all of its 50,000 local government members, plus Unison members are talking up the prospect of industrial action as well. The fact that this plan has come from a British Labour government through a Labour-controlled Scottish Parliament is helping to open the eyes of more workers to the reality of Labour’s imperialist connections, which can only add to the scepticism with which they receive their union leaders’ pleas to keep voting Labour or to retain the Labour/trade union links.

When the likes of Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, writes “We have had enough experience of Tory rule to know what the Tories would do to our public services, to our pensions and to our society if they became electable,” he struggles in the eyes of most of his own members to paint a picture bleaker than it is under Labour. Most workers are now able to understand that Labour, Tory and Lib-Dems all serve the same masters. Unfortunately, most cannot yet see the revolutionary alternative to voting for these puppets of the British bourgeois dictatorship.

At this volatile time, the job of communists is to try to bring some understanding to the masses of workers; to teach them that, not only is it necessary to fight and to break the anti-trade union laws that bind them, but that they must also ditch the leaders who refuse to break those laws and who seem to fight as hard to keep them as any government minister. If we wish to build a truly independent working-class movement in Britain, we must work to sever the ties between the trade union movement and the Labour Party. Even looking at the situation from a purely financial viewpoint, it is the height of stupidity to pay the wages of people who only serve the interests of our enemies!

Others may carry on exhorting workers to ‘reclaim Labour’, but the real message that we must carry into the working-class movement is that there is no alternative to fighting our enemies (including the opportunist agents in our midst). If we wish to build a future free from insecurity, poverty and war, we will have to overthrow the rotten and inhumane system of capitalist exploitation and wage slavery.

Trade unions could be excellent weapons in this struggle against capitalism, for they help to organise workers and weld them into a fighting force. In order to realise this potential, however, they must be released them from the opportunists’ grip.

All over the world where workers have had the benefit of pensions and pension schemes, the bourgeoisie is taking action to try to reduce them with a view to enhancing profits. This is certainly true in European countries. If all workers affected were prepared together to strike to prevent what is effectively a massive pay cut, and to stay on strike until the threat to all workers was withdrawn, the bourgeoisie would not be able to implement its plans. Workers must not only demand of their union leaders that they be prepared to fight at plant, national and international level by every possible means to defend pensions, but they should insist on the immediate removal of all union officials who show themselves to be anything less than militant.

No fight – no win.


> The great pensions robbery

> Leaflet: A decent pension is a right for all

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