Con-Dems back off from pensions fight

by Caroline Colebrook

THE CON-DEM Coalition last week announced that it would not be introducing major changes to public sector pensions in the Budget this March, saying it would not have the detailed proposals ready until the summer.

The plans, being drawn up by former Labour Cabinet member Lord Hutton, are expected to raise worker contributions substantially and may end final salary pensions in the public sector, in favour of pensions based on career average salaries — a big reduction when inflation is taken into account.

The interim Hutton report, published in October 2010, claimed that public sector pensions are “inherently unfair” and advocated increasing contributions and reducing payouts for civil servants.

The Treasury is hoping to save £1.8 billion through these measures, in conjunction with drastic cuts to the public sector.

The announcement followed a meeting of union leaders at TUC Congress House to coordinate the national day of action in protest against cuts to public sector jobs, pensions and pay, planned for 26th March.

They focussed on pensions as being an issue on which they could legitimately call for industrial action, under current anti-union laws that forbid strikes on issues of policy.

last resort?

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said strengthening the anti-union laws would be a last resort. “I would like to see unions moving from the looking-for-a-fight approach to one that exists on the continent where they see themselves as public partners,” he said.

It cannot have been the same continent that includes Greece, Portugal, France, Spain and so on, where unions have many more rights that workers in Britain and are using them in the fight against cuts. Nevertheless, in spite of Maude’s pretence about “last resort”, the Con-Dems are contemplating even more restrictions on the right to strike. They are looking at raising the threshold in a strike ballot so that a strike would only be lawful if more than 50 per cent of those entitled to vote backed a strike — though most of their parliamentary majorities are well below 50 per cent of those entitled to vote.

Meanwhile some union leaders seem lukewarm for the fight. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “As a result of discussions with the Chancellor and other ministers, the Government has agreed to central talks on the future of public service pensions.

accepted

“Ministers have now accepted that they will not force through changes in the March budget. We hope that the talks can make progress, but we cannot rule out industrial action taking place on this issue.”

The TUC general council meeting agreed that pensions were likely to form the focus of any calls for industrial action but some union leaders privately admit they need more time to negotiate with Government and to build solidarity across the unions.

In the short term many public sector unions are simply fighting job losses in local councils.

Barber said: “Unions will work very, very closely together in responding to all of those issues including, as a last resort, in some circumstances, potentially industrial action.

“As a result of discussions, the Government is now not intending to try and push through changes in public service pensions in the budget in March ... they have proposed discussions that will take place over the next few months.”

Barber said workers were facing a “volatile cocktail” of job cuts and attacks on pay and pensions which could spark widespread industrial action. “No one is talking about a general strike, but of course these attacks could well give rise to industrial action around specific disputes.”

Clearly union activists need to be putting as much pressure as possible on their leaders to stand firm and ensure that 26th March is just the first battle of a long hard campaign, not an overture to compromise and retreat.