Managing down the pensions struggle

On Monday, the National Executive Committee of the Public and Commercial Services union voted not to call a national strike on 28 March. This, despite a ballot that specifically named that date and endless rhetoric around “M28,” naturally left many feeling deflated. But the consequences of this decision are far broader than that.
Before I go any further, I’d like to lay my cards on the table. This won’t be a secret to regular readers, but I’m a member of PCS and a lay rep in my office. I do a low paid clerical job in the civil service and I’ve absolutely busted my balls organising around the pensions issue, often despite a significant clique of reps in my branch whose ambitions don’t tally up with members’ interests. In other words, I am not writing this as an outsider observing the struggle, but as an active participant in it.
Returning to the main issue of March 28, the PCS decision was informed by the fact that “the NUT executive had voted not to proceed with the one day national strike on March 28 as previously discussed.” The teachers union are striking on the day, but only in London. This “may provide a platform for a decision on national action at the end of April,” but until then PCS “must now work tirelessly to build the alliance of unions willing to take the serious national action we need to defend pensions.”

All well and good, but there are too many ifs and maybes. The PCS executive insists that it is looking at a “clear and unambiguous strategy” of “joint national strike action with other unions in the civil service and education sectors; joint national, regional and local protests; lobbying of Ministers, MPs and other politicians; and coordinated targeted industrial action in some sectors.” However, when grilled by lay reps at a pensions briefing in the North West ahead of the recent ballot, PCS Vice President Paula Brown was forced to admit that no details of this had been discussed and the old favourite of a one day strike was still the only concrete action PCS had ready.

On top of such a lacking and reductive strategy, even if the union lives up to its own hype, there’s the delay. Joint action was first mooted for February. Then 1 March. Then 15 March. Finally, 28 March seemed to be concrete. Now it’s the end of April. Maybe. In the meantime, members are seeing the government press ahead with its attacks whilst the unions offer next to no opposition. Because three days of strike action in a little over a year, even if they’re really big, are never going to defeat austerity.

Don’t believe me? Ask the Greeks.

The answer to this point is always one about “the will of the membership” and how we “must take the members with us”. In other words, the nonsense of a radical or militant officialdom held back by conservative or apathetic members. But that idea is demonstrably untrue.

I’m a member myself. I work in an office with 1,000 other members and I speak to them – both individually and in union meeting settings. I know that the appetite for a real fight is there, because the people who declare that we need more than a one day strike, like going out for a week, aren’t socialists or anarchists. The people who actively started talking about wildcat action at members meetings aren’t far left militants waiting for revolution. They’re not even reps. They’re ordinary workers and union members who can see themselves getting screwed over, who want to do something about it, and who more often than not are sold only passivity by the trade union leadership.

You can see it in the wider working class, too. The trade union movement lumbers on, bolstered somewhat by the escalating struggle. But any pretence of militancy is thrown into stark contrast by the students in 2010, by UK Uncut, by the Sparks, and most recently by the incredible anti-workfare movement. A growing minority of people – often new to struggle – are punching above their weight and giving the working class what they haven’t seen in a long while: victories. The unions continue to punch below their weight and to win only the concessions that take the most moderate out of the game.

It is in this context that the PCS position needs to be seen. Sure, by the standards of the official union movement as a whole, they’re “militant”. But this isn’t the level of militancy that can win struggles – indeed, it can’t be by the nature of the trade union structures. Rather, in most government departments and nationally PCS members have been sold out on various issues by the Left Unity leadership. I’ve documented the sickness absence and privatisation disputes in the Revenue & Customs group, for example, whilst nationally the union already conceded a two-tier pension scheme several years back under a Labour government. Far from being a “fighting left leadership” (is there such a beast?) they are simply more hard-nosed than some of their compatriots within the same structures and facing the same interests and pressures.

What we are seeing with the decision to postpone the strike is not exactly a “sell out,” as some have termed it. More, it is the latest increment in a gradual winding down of the struggle.

When it began, the PCS ballot mandate was for jobs and pay as well as pensions, with “fair pensions for all” being the answer to the attempt to play up a public/private divide. Over time, pay and jobs disappeared from the rhetoric. In the recent ballot, we weren’t even fighting for fair pensions for all, just “concessions.” Now, the date that is actually mentioned on the ballot paper is set to simply pass us by.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is undoubtedly that the capitulation of Unison et al knocked the wind out of a lot of people’s sails. As a result, this will have dampened the rank-and-file pressure that forced strikes over the issue in the first place, giving the leadership some breathing room. Add to this that the thunder and enthusiasm has been stolen by the more vibrant and exciting struggles led on the ground, like workfare and the Sparks as cited above. All of which will have meant that N30 was a peak in this fight that has now passed.

But this was not an unpredictable occurrence. The fact that Unison dragged its heels so long told everyone that they would always be the most reticent to strike and the first to capitulate. That could have been planned for. And if action is only effective if “coordinated,” in a “coalition,” where was this sectional and targeted action going to come from? The unions and the left have been good at picking up buzz words to sound militant, but it is clear that they have no appetite to actually fight and win.

If more coordinated action does take place, it will only be after a hard fought battle within the unions. Even then, it will be after the first pension contribution increases have been imposed and enthusiasm will dampen further. We then face the prospect of a “deal” that can be sold as a win but isn’t, somewhere down the line, and an open door to privatisation, job losses and attacks on workers’ conditions across the board. In short, not only a defeat in this dispute, but a crushing defeat for the working class over a whole raft of issues relating to austerity.

There is no easy answer to this, of course. A rank-and-file movement like the Sparks simply doesn’t exist amongst public sector workers, and whatever strategies we come up with will not be implemented by the leadership. Though of course we should try to build that rank-and-file movement, and re-apply the pressure to force the union tops that very short distance they will actually budge to the left. The fight goes ever on.

Whatever happens, this incident serves as yet another example of why talk of “left leadership” is a red herring. The spectrum of left to right is very narrow, and on opposite ends of it the union structure still has its own interests as the keeper of industrial peace. Putting all our energy into propping up one end of it for supposedly being “left” or “more militant” only takes us away from what we really need to start scoring victories – the confidence to take control of our own struggles at a rank-and-file level.

Republished from Truth, Reason & Liberty

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