We can still win
The executive of the Public and Commercial Services Union has decided that "PCS members will not be taking part in the March 28 strike" against the attack on pensions. Tina Becker spoke to Lee Rock (assistant branch secretary, department for work and pensions, Sheffield) about the decision
Mark Serwotka: looking towards April
Around 72% of PCS members voted for more strike action - that’s a higher percentage than the vote which led to the June 30 and November 30 walkouts. Why has the leadership decided not to go through with the planned action on March 28?
I can understand the decision, though tactically I think it is a mistake. The reason is last week’s decision by the leadership of the National Union of Teachers not to participate in a joint national strike on March 28. Although 73% of NUT members voted for strike action, the national leadership overturned that decision by 24 votes to 15. Some have claimed that the turnout was not good enough at 40% - but they went on strike following a similar turnout last June and November. To their credit, the left on the executive, including the Socialist Party, voted for strike action and managed to get the executive to agree at least to limited regional action in London on that day. The lecturers’ University and College Union are now limiting their action to just London following the PCS decision.
The turnout of the PCS ballot was even lower than that of the NUT: less than 33% of PCS members voted. That is not good, but it’s not the worst turnout we’ve seen. Only the three Socialist Workers Party members on the PCS leadership voted for striking on March 28. But Socialist Party members, who politically dominate the executive, voted against.
Of course, the NUT decision was a huge blow for our fight. We have made big play out of the coalition of unions resisting the attacks on pension and I can understand why the leadership doesn’t want to take out our members on their own. However, I made the point at the Yorkshire and Humberside regional committee last week that in my view the action should go ahead. Firstly, that would have put more pressure on the NUT. And, secondly, it would have shown what the strength of feeling is within the PCS if we go it alone. We didn’t take a vote at the regional committee, but nobody spoke against this point of view.
The PCS executive has instead decided to “continue to pursue a joint union campaign, including a coordinated national strike in April”. The plan is to wait for the NUT conference at the beginning of April in the hope that the NUT activist layer will get conference to vote for strike action and overturn the decision of their executive.
Mark Serwotka says he is “very confident” that there will be a joint action with the NUT in April.
I’m not. Of course, it could easily happen that NUT conference instructs their leadership to call a strike. After all, it’s mainly the activists that dominate the branches and go to conference. However, such a vote does not necessarily mean that the leadership will then act on it. I would have thought that the NUT executive must be very convinced of the correctness of their decision - otherwise they wouldn’t have overturned the outcome of a ballot in the first place. I think they will try to stick to their guns, whatever the outcome of the conference.
I can’t say I understand that decision, because many of their members will be very angry. Of course, I very much hope that joint action will go ahead. We need to keep up the pressure if we’re serious about fighting the attacks on our pensions. But, listening to Mark Serwotka, it seems clear that the PCS leadership will not call a national strike in April unless the NUT also calls one.
Can you talk us through the proposed attacks on the pensions?
There are different pension schemes in the public service. I’m on quite an old civil service scheme. From April 1, I have to pay 3.5% of my wages towards my pension, instead of 1.5% .This then goes up again in 2013 and once more in 2014 - all the while, the contribution of the employer remains the same.
Considering the low wages many people in the public service are on, this makes a massive difference. Also, this comes after a two-year pay freeze. And, with the threatened abolition of the national salary scale, it means most people in the public service who live outside the south-east will be hit by years of pay freezes to come. I will also have to work to 68 instead of 65. So, in a nutshell, we will not get pay rises in line with inflation, will pay more towards our pension, will have to work much longer, and in the end will get a smaller pension.
Considering what’s at stake, why do you think the turnout in the PCS was so low?
Turnouts are generally quite low in most unions today. Only about 10% of PCS members vote in national elections. The main reason is the lack of rank-and-file organisation and the lack of shop stewards on the ground. Some members might have thought, ‘It’s only a consultation ballot’, but I don’t think that’s the main reason for the low turnout. We’re missing activists on the ground.
The main organisation within the PCS is Left Unity, which has over 1,000 members. The SWP is part of Left Unity but is tiny and irrelevant - the SP, which is far more dominant, give them a few seats on the NEC and that is it. Unfortunately, Left Unity is nothing more than an electoral machine. It does not even attempt to build a rank and file. Since the SWP closed down rank-and-file organisations in most unions in the late 70s and early 80s, their only interest is to have some of their members re-elected to various committees so that they can then look important.
And let’s not forget: in 2005, the SWP and the SP in PCS voted for the introduction of a two-tier pension scheme, as did Mark Serwotka. They justified their disastrous decision by claiming to want to protect the pensions of the existing members. Of course, once you make such a concession and allow new workers to get worse deals, it’s only a matter of time until they come for the existing deals. Some of us argued at the time that we should have stood our ground and not let the government divide us. But they all voted ‘yes’. And the current attacks on our pensions are partly the result of that sell-out.
Unfortunately, the left outside Left Unity has recently collapsed and is in no position to put up a fight. Because of the sectarianism of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Independent Left in the PCS has split and many members, including myself, left. The IL now consists mainly of members in London that are heavily influenced by the AWL. I predict that in a few years’ time, the AWL will be pushing to get back into Left Unity. Of course, now that the attempt to build an alternative to LU has failed, that could well be the right thing to do for all socialists.
In November, more than 2.5 million people were on the streets - and there was a lot of talk of this being the ‘beginning of the fightback’. In hindsight, it seems that in reality it was the end of it.
It puzzles me that so many people on the left still have illusions in the trade union bureaucracy. The leaders of the big unions don’t actually think they can defeat this assault, so they weren’t even trying. They were happy to take the ‘heads of agreement’ deal, which is slightly better for workers who retire within the next 10 years. That they would sell us out was obvious from the start. They will sell out their members as soon as they have the opportunity.
What I can’t get my head around is how naive or opportunist the SWP in particular have been in all this. They have been sucking up to the trade union bureaucracy all the way through. The platforms of their Unite the Resistance meetings were full of union bureaucrats and not once was there a critical word from the SWP that these are exactly the same people who have sold us out in the past and will do so again. They also quite explicitly argued against having rank-and-file speakers, for example, at their meetings in Sheffield. Only when the sell-out happens will they say, ‘Well, that was, of course, a possibility …’ But, as they have done nothing to prepare members for this outcome, massive disillusionment and demoralisation sets in.
Can this fight still be won?
We should continue to fight and push for national action - but without the NUT, our chances of winning are massively reduced, I have to admit. We urgently have to start considering other actions: the banning of overtime, for example. But also regional and departmental strikes. We need to keep the action rolling and let the government know that they can’t avoid disruption. It’s a kind of guerrilla warfare: we have to try to wear them down. That way, I think, it is still possible to win. And if not to win this time, at least to put a marker down for the next round of attacks