Currently Unison is balloting its health service members on the government's pensions "offer" with no recommendation for further industrial action, while 400,000 Unite and PCS members prepare to strike on May 10. Where is the pensions campaign going?
"The new pensions will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers. We are no longer requiring private, voluntary and social enterprise providers to take on the risks of defined benefit that deter many (from) bidding for contracts in the first place."
So said Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander (pictured below), explaining the government's public-sector pensions policy to Parliament last December.
How much clearer do we want them to be? It's not about "affordability" or "deficit reduction." It's about privatisation. In order to sell off services to the private sector, the government has to do a number of things.
First, reduce the cost of pensions to potential private employers.
Second, abolish national pay rates and promote workplace pay bargaining, with regional pay as a starting point.
Third, undermine public-service workers' conditions to encourage "flexibility" in work patterns, hiring and firing etc.
Fourth, undermine public-sector trade unionism.
All these are under way.
So when we decide a strategy for the pensions campaign, we have to be clear among ourselves and with our communities that this is a struggle against the central plank of the government's political platform - the wholesale sell-off of public services from which profit can be made.
Those services that cannot be used to make profit will be abandoned to Big Society volunteers in the name of "deficit reduction." We already have McJobs. Now we'll see B&Q services - do it yourself!
Currently Unison health service members are being balloted on the government pensions "pay more, work longer, get less" position.
The Unison health service group executive put this to members with no proposal on acceptance or rejection, but advising members that "it is the best that can be achieved by negotiation" and that rejection would trigger "the risk that the government would impose a worse offer."
They also warn members that rejection would mean "sustained industrial action, bringing out occupational groups, members across a geographical area or targeting specific employers, either on a rolling programme or specific periods or on an all-out basis."
The executive asserts that "the position of other unions is that although some have rejected, none have planned any further industrial action" - a situation which is no longer the case.
The ballot started on April 10 and finishes on April 27. The Unison national executive recently agreed to update the information about other unions' positions in the light of the Unite and PCS action on May 10 - but many Unison members will have voted already.
What is missing from this advice and indeed from most of the pensions struggle "strategy" across the unions is that further industrial action can be sustainable and ultimately successful if it is built into a high-profile political campaign against privatisation.
Such a campaign would put the unions at the heart of communities already struggling against spending cuts and shoddy private providers. It would lead to fertile ground for us to promote an alternative economic strategy as agreed at TUC Congress. It would enable the unions to work more effectively with the People's Charter to build a real movement at local and national levels for that alternative.
So the question is not: "Do we accept the offer, or do we commit to further industrial action?"
The question needs to be: "Can we build a sustained and growing movement of unions and communities for public services in which industrial action would be just one - though a very important - part?"
What would such a campaign look like? We might consider the following six-point plan.
- We need a hard-hitting joint union statement identifying the privatisation strategy of the government as the political context of the pensions struggle
- The unions need to openly challenge the legitimacy of the Con-Dem coalition - an unelected millionaires' government made up of two parties that each lost the general election
- We need to identify the alternative economic and political strategy promoting the People's Charter - demanding that it form the basis of the manifesto of any political party that claims to represent working people and wants their votes
- We should launch a sustained high-profile campaign for public services at local level involving regional TUCs, trades councils, People's Charter groups and others with street stalls, house-to-house door-knocking, demonstrations, lobbies and occupations against cuts and privatisation - explaining this as the context of the pensions and pay struggles
- The unions' public-sector liaison group of the TUC should approach the private-sector unions and the National Pensioners Convention for co-ordinated campaigning on the issues of public-sector, private-sector and state retirement pensions.
- Further "guerilla" industrial action (including the things in the Unison advice to members) called as part of a strategy of building the wider, broader movement against privatisation and the government.
In this context we need to note the work of the Institute of Employment Rights, which shows that the 1998 UK Human Rights Act obliges British courts to give effect to European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings.
The ECHR has ruled that its convention guaranteeing "freedom of assembly and association" requires states to permit peaceful protests and strikes against government policy - and that includes general strike action.
Could this explain the devious attempts by the Con-Dems to discredit the ECHR and repeal the Human Rights Act?
We may not be ready for a general strike - yet! But we need to up the stakes. The Con-Dems think they can beat us by encouraging us to consider their full-on political attack as just another dispute, and then set about "dividing and ruling" us.
Our response cannot be to roll over, and has to be much more than continued sporadic industrial action. This is a matter for the whole working class - and the unions' strategy needs to be firmly based on mobilising that immense force.