The possibility of a serious fightback, which was represented by the magnificent strike on November 30 has been thrown into question by the retreat of a number of unions, led by UNISON and supported by the TUC leadership. We are now in a dangerous situation.
The November 30th strike could hardly have been a bigger success. Around 2 million workers (the majority women) took part. It united 27 unions across the NHS, education, civil service and local government. It was the biggest strike for a generation and the most important action yet in the campaign against the cuts. The unions were united around the three main features of the attack: that workers were being asked to work longer, to pay more, and get less. It was a brilliant platform for united action.
There were thousands of militant actions, picket lines, and demonstration across the country – from the big cities to the smallest of towns. In Birmingham 10,000 took to the streets, Manchester 25,000, Newcastle 8,500, Glasgow 25,000 plus, Bristol 20,000, Oxford 5,000 and in London up to 50,000.
And it received a remarkable level of public support. Various polls put it at between 48% and 61% with the highest support amongst women and young people. This support was reflected on many of the demonstrations, which were clapped through the streets by onlookers.
Militant speeches were the order of the day. You could hardly tell right from left— even UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber were talking militant. They both spoke at the Birmingham rally stressing that this was a crucial struggle facing the trade unions, that it was the spearhead of the fight against all cuts and that this was only the start of the struggle. They got prolonged standing ovations when they said that they were going to see the pensions struggle through until the end.
In fact Prentis had said in his speech to the union’s National Delegate conference last July that one day’s action would not be enough in this “long hard fight in which victory cannot be guaranteed”.
However, less than two weeks later, even those well versed in the capacity of right-wing trade union leaders to collapse, were shocked when a number of them, led by UNISON and the TUC, accepted an invitation to break up into sectoral negotiations around a ‘final offer’ with no change what-so-ever on the central issues of “pay more, work longer, and get less”.
Even worse. Within hours of the first meetings statements were being made by UNISON officials that progress was being made and that there was a good chance of a settlement. When it was pointed out that nothing was being conceded on the main issues at stake—and that Danny Alexander had made it clear that the final offer had not cost the government a penny more than the original offer—the UNISON official conducting the negotiations in the NHS said that this was true but that “we have always seen this as a damage limitation exercise”. Such comments reflect the platitudes coming from the mouths of the Labour leadership and their lackeys who no doubt were pushing hard behind the scenes for such a retreat.
Despite unions such as the PCS and the NUT standing firm on the original principles of the dispute UNISON had accepted a Heads of Agreement statement (an agreement in principle that they would take back to the union for consultation) before everything closed down for Christmas and the action was thrown into serious crisis.
When UNISON’s Service Group Executives met on January 10, they all agreed, by different margins, to continue negotiations rather than prepare for further industrial action. What we now have is a serious split in the coalition that delivered the action on N30. The left inside UNISON are rightly launching an all-out campaign for special conferences in the different sectors to argue for continued action.
It is crucial that, regardless of UNISON’s actions, the battle to defend pensions continues. A collapse of the campaign would trigger a further race to the bottom on pensions in both the public and private sectors. It would also have a big negative impact on the trade union movement, not only missing out on a major opportunity to begin to rebuild the unions but would open up the space for another offensive by the coalition and the employers against the unions. It would be a huge blow to the wider struggle against the cuts and a crucial victory for the government.
This government is determined to making the working class pay the cost of the crisis. It wants to do this through its 2.5 per cent hike in pension payments for 5 million people. On top of this it wants us to work longer for reduced benefits with a four year wage freeze – which of course means in practice a massive cut in real income. The increase in the retirement age especially in the current economic situation will further drive up unemployment especially amongst young people. All of this goes alongside attacks on those receiving benefits and all those using public services – as well as their refusal to impose a real financial transaction tax on the banks.
At the time of writing, ten unions have refused to sign up to the Heads of Agreement. These include the PCS, most of the education unions i.e. NUT, NAS/UWT, UCU, EIS, and POA, NAPO, NIPSA and Unite in the NHS, local government and the Ministry of Defence. These unions represent over 1 million members and have the capacity to take industrial action that can force the government to back down
At the TUC public services committee on January 12 the PCS put forward a resolution seconded by the NUT to ask the TUC to support further strike action in defence of pensions. This was not supported by any other union.
Discussions are now taking place between the NUT and the PCS in particular to discuss how to take the campaign forward. At the same time the NUT is talking with the other education unions to try to get agreement for further joint action. These moves need to be supported not only by all trade union activists but by all those who are fighting the reactionary policies of this coalition government on many fronts.
The last twelve months saw an significant upward curve of struggle – starting with the student mobilisations at the end of 2010 and including the great TUC demonstration on March 26, the strikes on June 30 and finally the magnificent display of strength on November 30. Prentis and Barber have now broken this momentum – the job we all have to address over the weeks ahead is to ensure that the dip in struggle is as shallow as possible.