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Pensions Strike - Plenty of power, but little independence

John McAnulty

7 April 2006

On 28th March tens of thousand of local government workers withdrew their labour across the North of Ireland. All buses and trains stopped and schools, libraries and many other local services were affected. The strike was part of a broader action in Britain, where 1.5 million workers were involved.

It was a stark example of the power of the organised working class.  Yet a day later it was as if it had never happened. The British government showed little in the way of concern and gave no indication of a change of direction.  How can such a demonstration of power have so little effect?

The issue behind the strike was pensions.  The British government intend to change the rules to remove an early retirement clause from the local government employment contract.  The argument is that people are living longer and the government can no longer afford the cost of pensions.  Yet pensions are part of peoples wage agreements. The government that can afford to invade Iraq and plans to spend hundreds of billions in upgrading its nuclear weapons systems is too poor to pay its workers!  In fact the pensions issue is only the first line in a general attack on workers wages and conditions.  The government has used the law to tie workers hands and feet while the private sector cut back. Now they intend a direct attack on public sector workers, intending to produce a race to the bottom where both public and private workers have minimum rights and conditions.  Public sector workers are in the front line.

The mass turnout indicates the anger felt by local government workers at being targeted in this way.  The absence of any spontaneous forms of organisation indicates the low levels of political consciousness that leave the union bosses in charge of strategy.  In fact most workers are unaware of the abysmal role that union leaders have played to date and of the extremely narrow aqnd limited strategy they are applying.

In fact new labour telegraphed its intention to attack public service workers before the last election.  The union leader’s response was to agree the Mickey Mouse ‘Warwick agreement’.  The government agreed to look again at the issue and in return the union bosses, led by the ATGWU, agreed to call off industrial action and campaign for a third Blair term.

True to form, after the election New Labour looked again at the issue and agreed to start again where they had left off.  The unions went into negotiations and claimed victory when they did a deal to preserve the pensions of workers in the central civil service, teaching and health.  In fact the deal was a complete sellout, saving current pensions by taking even more from the pensions of new recruits and leaving the way open for a two-tier system where local government workers get an even worse deal.

The unions have a strategy, but it serves their interests of maintaining good relations with the government and keeping activity under control. The main strike is to be followed by rolling strikes.  The bureaucracy have made it abundantly clear that they hope this will be enough to get the rotten deal that now applies in central civil service, teaching and health.  It doesn’t even begin to answer the broader question of the assault on pay and conditions faced by the working class.

As in the recent Irish Ferries demonstrations in the 26 counties, we have plenty of militancy but all of it under the control of a bureaucracy who see their interests in partnership with the government and bosses and their role simply to try and amend 
some of the worst features of attacks. 

A  starting point for the working class self-consciousness and self-awareness that would transform the situation would be to build a rank and file network across the unions able to organise the agitation and information that the workers will need if they are to remobilise in their own interests. 


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