One of the most noticeable things about the turnout on the London demonstration called by striking unions on June 30th was how young so many of the participants were and the preponderance of young women. They were loud, defiant and organised. For many it would have been their first experience of strikes, pickets and protest marches against the government. A generation of activists with no memory of past defeats was showing their willingness to take to the streets in defence of a pension entitlement that for many of them is still almost forty years away. Whilst this was very clearly seen in London it was also a feature of the large demonstrations and marches in Leeds, Sheffield, Cambridge and elsewhere
The issue at stake could not be clearer. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and some in the Labour Party want to make public sector workers pay up to an extra £100 per month towards their pensions. This is in addition to reducing pensions by changing the inflation index by which they are uprated from the Retail Price Index (RPI) to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). As the NASUWT observes “If the average difference between RPI and CPI is 0.75% per annum, the total loss on a pension of £10,000 would be more than £20,000 after 20 years on lower increases.”. Then of course there is the absurd idea that women and men at the age of 68 or 66 are still teaching classes of 25-30 7 year olds or 15 year olds.
The national strikes and regional demonstrations were called by an alliance of some of the most politically combative unions and one of the least. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has not called a national strike despite having been founded in the 19th century. On the other hand the National Union of Teachers (NUT), University and College Union (UCU) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have well established records for militancy. The PCS general secretary has developed into an art form the on air skewering of Tory minsters’ defence of their pension proposals.
Both the BBC and the Con Dems have been using the appalling level of private sector pension provision as a perverse justification for slashing those in the public sector. This offers the unions a perfect opportunity to go on the ideological offensive. It could even be an idea that Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership could use to bash the Con Dems. Offering a coherent vision of what decent pensions for all working people would look like is something that could attract millions of despondent and nervous private sector workers to a fight against the government. The joint petition by the NUT, ATL, UCU and PCS to David Cameron, calling for all employers to provide decent occupational pension schemes and an increase in the state pension, is a first step which should be supported but we also need to raise the demand of the nationalisation of the pensions industry so that all workers can get a decent pension when they retire.
June 30th was an impressive display of union militancy and working class power. Every family with school age children was shown just how much clout teachers and other education workers can have. Civil servants paralysed whole swathes of the state. The fight inside the unions now has to be to hold to account those union leaderships who have held back from the struggle to defend pensions. The NASUWT, Unison and the GMB have to be persuaded to ballot for autumn action in conjunction with the ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU. The Con Dems can be defeated on this issue. They have to be.