Workers Hammer No. 217
Public sector pensions battle
For hard class struggle to defeat government austerity!
The one-day public sector strike on 30 November was the largest strike in Britain for decades. Over two million public sector employees including teachers, local government workers, civil servants and health service workers took part in the work stoppage. Around the country tens of thousands joined protests against the government’s plan to gut their pensions. By increasing employee contributions, raising the retirement age and changing the method of adjusting for inflation, the government is trying to force public sector workers to foot the bill for reducing the budget deficit. The attack on pensions means public sector workers will pay more, work longer and get less when they retire.
On the eve of the strike, chancellor George Osborne delivered an Autumn Statement intended to send a message to the financial markets that the government will enforce harsh austerity measures on the working class and poor. Osborne announced that public sector job losses would amount to 710,000 by 2017 — not 400,000 as previously projected. When the current two-year pay freeze ends, pay increases will be capped at one per cent, with inflation currently running at over five per cent. While tax credits were taken away from some of the country’s poorest families, businesses were awarded billions of pounds in tax breaks and other funding. Decrepit British capitalism is openly declaring a decade of austerity for an already impoverished working class and a future of unemployment and despair for an entire generation of youth. According to the government’s own figures more than 2.6 million are now unemployed, including a million youth aged 16 to 24, the highest level on record.
In terms of sheer numbers the strike was a powerful manifestation of working-class anger and of the potential for a class-struggle fightback against the government’s austerity measures. The strike drew in large numbers of women and ethnic minorities, who are among the lowest paid workers in the country. Many were striking for the first time in their lives. It is in the interests of the whole working class to defeat the government’s attack on pensions. To do so requires mobilising the social power of the working class in hard class struggle. But the leadership of the public sector trade unions is tied to the Labour Party, which is committed to capitalist austerity. For the trade union leaders, the one-day strike, half a year in the making, was a token action to allow workers to let off steam while providing a bargaining chip in negotiations with the government. No attempt was made to bring out workers in the private sector, nor the unions in public transport, the ports and airports, who could have brought the economy to a halt.
No sooner were the 30 November speeches over and the banners folded than the TUC and the more right-wing union misleaders began promoting a sell-out. On 19 December TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, leader of Unison — the largest union in local government and the NHS — argued for signing a “Heads of Agreement” with the government, which meant pledging there would be no further strike action while new proposals from the government were being considered. The government’s revised offer is in all fundamentals the same as before, with some tinkering on details such as accrual rates and contributions.
However, reflecting the level of anger among the union membership, Unite members in local government and in the NHS have rejected the government’s latest offer, as have the two largest teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT. The main civil service union, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, has also rejected the government’s proposals and its leader, Mark Serwotka, has been making noises about further strikes. However, at a 7 January conference in London called by the PCS Left Unity grouping, Serwotka hinted that the PCS would only call a strike if the other unions could be persuaded to do so. Otherwise, he said, the PCS would review its tactics.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party tail Serwotka and promote him as a supposed focus of resistance to the pensions sell-out. But to present Serwotka — or themselves — as intransigent fighters against the pensions sell-out requires some chutzpah and memory loss. In 2005, when the then Labour government hatched a plan to increase the pension age from 60 to 65, PCS members voted to strike. Rather than call effective strike action, which would have brought the union into conflict with Labour in office, Serwotka agreed a rotten compromise under which new entrants to the civil service would have to work five more years to earn their entitlement to a pension. This deal was backed by the Socialist Party, whose supporters hold positions in the PCS leadership.
No less than Barber and Prentis, Serwotka’s perspective is limited to supporting another Labour government to replace the Tories. Despite the fact that Labour leader Ed Miliband and other Labour spokesmen never miss an opportunity to denounce striking workers, Serwotka covered for them at the 30 November London rally, intoning: “it’s time that the Labour Party got off the fence and said they support your strike”. Serwotka’s fundamental loyalty to the capitalist order in Britain is also expressed in the fact that the PCS includes immigration cops among its members. The trade union bureaucracy and the reformist left routinely list these cops, as well as the Prison Officers Association (POA) and probation officers among “public sector workers”. They are nothing of the sort. Like the police, these groups are a part of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state and have no place in the workers movement.
Lessons of the miners strike
The living standards of the working class are being slashed while financiers in the Square Mile rake in vast profits from dubious “products” which often have zero social value. Under Thatcher’s Tories in the 1980s, the City of London was given free rein while manufacturing jobs were decimated, a trend which continued apace under the Blair and Brown Labour governments. Britain’s capitalist rulers have had a deliberate policy of de-industrialisation, which has left the working class in a weakened, atomised state. This has been exacerbated by betrayals at the hands of the Labourite misleaders and defeats in struggle, of which the defeat of the miners strike in 1984-85 was the pivotal event.
At the PCS Left Unity conference, Mark Serwotka spoke of a “deep-seated fatalism” that exists among the trade unions today, making it difficult to organise even one-day public sector strikes. Serwotka said that one of Britain’s most senior trade union leaders took him aside in July and said: “You are mad if you think that strikes can change anything. Some of us still have the scars on our back of the defeat of the miners and never again will we go back to the trade union movement being isolated”.
The TUC was overtly hostile to the miners strike; likewise the Labour Party leadership under Neil Kinnock condemned the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as it battled Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the full force of the capitalist state. The miners held out for twelve bitter months but were isolated and defeated. As we wrote at the end of the strike:
“In the final analysis, it was not the cops and courts that defeated the NUM; it was the fifth column in labour’s ranks. Norm Willis and Neil Kinnock opposed this strike from the first day to the last; now they’ll try to tell us class struggle doesn’t pay. And from the TUC ‘lefts’ who could have shut down the country and achieved a historic victory for the working class, there came plenty of hot air speeches and even more backroom sabotage.”
— Workers Hammer no 67, March 1985
The lesson of the miners strike is not that class struggle doesn’t pay. At least the NUM leadership under Arthur Scargill fought a class battle, in contrast to today’s trade union leaders. Scargill took the strike about as far as it could go within a perspective of militant trade unionism. The strike lost because of the betrayals of the trade union bureaucrats of the day — particularly the “lefts”, who led the unions in the railways and the docks. Had they struck alongside the miners, they could have shut down the country. But — as with Serwotka today — the “lefts” were not willing to organise their unions to really take on the government because their perspective was limited to replacing the Tories with a Labour government, and Labour was committed to strikebreaking.
Today, in the grip of severe recession, there is no other way to defend the working class from the current attacks than through hard class struggle. A central lesson of the miners strike is the need for a new leadership of the trade unions, forged in opposition to the Labourites, “left” as well as right. Such a leadership would not play by the bosses’ rules and would be committed to fighting for what the working class needs, not what the bosses say they can afford. To secure jobs, good housing, education, healthcare, a comfortable retirement for the elderly and a future for youth requires ripping the means of production out of the hands of the bourgeoisie through socialist revolution and building an egalitarian socialist society in which those who labour rule.
The current economic crisis demonstrates the irrational, destructive nature of the capitalist system, which is based on production for profit, rather than for human need. Running the economy in the interests of the working people will only become possible through the seizure of power by the proletariat in a series of revolutions internationally and rational economic planning based on an international division of labour. The indispensable instrument for that is a multiethnic revolutionary workers party; the forging of such a party is the purpose of the Spartacist League.