Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Save Our Pension!

Several hundred trade unionists (mostly I think UNISON members) were present at today’s lobby of Parliament in relation to the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). Labour MPs need to realise that they risk upsetting more than a million of LGPS members and their dependents if the Government legislates to offer us a less valuable pension scheme for a higher rate of employee contribution as seems likely. This will damage Labour in the polls as our General Secretary pointed out at the briefing session today.

The Government are not listening – their briefing to Labour MPs for today’s lobby says that “the LGPS was not included in the Public Service Forum Agreement of October 2005 because it is a funded Scheme and has historically always had a pension age of 65, as opposed to 60 for the other public sector schemes. Consequently, it did not come within the remit of PSF, and this exclusion was made clear to the LGPS unions when the Agreement was approved by Alan Johnson.” In other words the (New) Labour Government are happy to stand by the unfairness to local government workers!

This dispute does however expose very clearly the political limitations of our current approach to dealing with this hostile and reactionary Government. Perhaps the most useful part of the day was the meeting called by the Kirklees branch of UNISON (the largest trade union branch in Yorkshire) who have taken the lead in forcing UNISON to agree to call a special Conference about this dispute. We could challenge New Labour by supporting electoral challenges to the Labour Party (which I would not support) or by supporting a challenge to New Labour within the Labour Party (which I would). As things stand we will do neither – and an NEC colleague attacked me for giving out John4Leader leaflets at today’s lobby! Our leadership appear to think that we can get somewhere by having influence over a Brown/Johnson leadership of the Party. Dream on…

Paul Holmes, Kirklees Branch Secretary, gave a very positive introduction to the meeting, correctly identifying the lack of direction from our national leadership in this vital dispute. He suggested that our leadership don’t know what they are doing with this dispute.

This is quite a persuasive argument.

First we managed to lose the unity of all public sector workers in October 2005 and leave the LGPS members to fight alone.

Then, having taken the most successful and largest strike action for 80 years we suspended further action in order to allow for negotiations which got nowhere.

In June we were persuaded not to resume industrial action because we were awaiting a judicial review which (predictably) got nowhere. This foolish challenge (not agreed in advance by the elected representatives of our local government members) has enabled the Government to say in their briefing to MPs that; “UNISON challenged the removal of the Rule of 85, claiming the Rule did not breach the age discrimination legislation, to be introduced in October 2006. However, their Judicial Review application was dismissed on all grounds by a High Court ruling in a judgement given on 27 September 2006.”

Now we have the likelihood of an industrial action ballot and the inevitability of a Special Service Group Conference – because 90 branches representing 300,000 of our 800,000 local government members have called for this. The support for the call for a Special Conference amounts to a devastating critique of the failed strategy of our national leadership hitherto.

UNISON local government activists need to be meeting now so that branches can take view on the important questions of what industrial action we should call for (in my view we must look at all out action involving all members in strike action of more than a single day and escalating from there) and how we run our dispute (I agree tha the governance of our dispute should be in the hands of LGPS members – not paid officials – and that we need a transparent, democratic and accountable strike committee.

Our members are up for a fight on pensions. Our leadership needs to live up to our membership.

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