UNISON members in local government, the NHS and civil service have overwhelmingly voted “yes” to strike action in an unprecedented national ballot over the attack on public sector pension schemes. There was a 76% “yes” vote across English and Welsh council branches with 30% of members voting. Healthworkers backed action by an even greater margin of 82%. Together with co-workers in the NUT, PCS and (subject to ballot results) Unite and the GMB among other unions, UNISON members look set for strike action on 30 November. In sheer numbers this could be the biggest strike across Britain since 1926.
First and foremost, this is a dispute about public service workers’ pensions, but it is also about the much broader attack on the public sector and its workforce, and the distribution of wealth across society.
Unfortunately, but predictably, a media chorus followed last Wednesday’s (2 November) statement by Danny Alexander, suggesting that the government has made a dramatically improved offer. In fact, no new offer has emerged – we have instead a statement of principles from Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander concerning schemes post-April 2015, cynically timed to coincide with the close of Unison’s strike ballot.
Although he announced small steps in the right direction – such as exempting workers within 10 years of retirement from some of the detrimental proposals – Alexander failed to address public sector workers’ very legitimate concerns. At present, the government still proposes to: reduce the rate at which pension payments rise by switching to the Consumer Price Index; raise the retirement age for the vast majority at a time of record youth unemployment; and impose significant hikes in pension contributions against a continuing pay freeze, which since 2009 has meant an effective pay cut of 11.6% for most council staff. Public sector workers can ill-afford to “pay more for less” for pensions provision.
Many politicians and media pundits say that a 76% ‘yes’ vote on a 30% turnout is no mandate. But only 23.5% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives in May 2010, yet they seize on this as justification for attacks on jobs, services and welfare provision.
There is already widespread repetition of the myth of ‘gold-plated’ pensions, when the real gold-plated pensions are those amassed by company directors and leading lights in the City. Top corporate directors have pension pots allowing for an average of nearly £225,000 a year on retirement – 34 times the average public sector pension. In addition, directors have seen pay soar by 49% this year. Often these very same directors have stripped their workforces of pension rights. As the protesters at St Paul’s have highlighted the top 1% are doing very nicely, while all too many in the other 99% suffer austerity.
Attacking public sector pensions won’t help private sector workers. To secure pensions justice will require strong trade unions and collective action, which can boost provision across the board so all of us can enjoy a decent standard of living in retirement.
With all this in mind along with other branch secretaries and union activists, I remain fully committed to mounting the most effective strike action Britain has seen in generations on 30 November.
Camden UNISON Branch Secretary & Trades Council Chair
C/o 59 Phoenix Road
London NW1 1ES.