Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Protect our Pensions (but slowly?)

I know that sometimes left-wingers like myself in the union movement are seen as over eager when it comes to strike action.

However it does seem that the trade unions may be in danger of going too far in the opposite direction in the dispute over the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). Today the Service Group Executive (SGE) decided to give it another four weeks before deciding whether or not to start another strike ballot (in the hope that talks with the employers will bear fruit in that time).

Perhaps the majority of the SGE think we have been too hasty in this dispute thus far?

When we faced the threat of detrimental changes across all public service pension schemes we geared up for strike action. Then, in the run up to the 2005 General Election, the Government backed down so we called off the strike action.

OK. I thought that made sense to be honest. You don’t strike against something which isn’t going to happen, even if you worry that it might again one day. Anyway the TUC in September 2005 decided that we would all stand together, all five million public service workers. So that seemed good.

Then we had negotiations in the Public Service Forum, leading to an offer of lifetime protection for the members of other (unfunded) public service pension schemes but not for members of the (funded) LGPS. All of the unions agreed to this, and LGPS members were encouraged to think that being isolated from all the others somehow improved our position (it gave us an argument for equal treatment!)

The failure to hold together the campaigns around all of the public service pension schemes left the LGPS isolated and negotiating without the added strength of the teachers, civil servants and health workers.

The Government did not offer us an acceptable package and on 28 March 2006 we took the largest strike action seen in this country for many years, involving eleven trade unions and over a million workers. We hailed the success of our strike.

But then, in the run up to the local elections in 2006, we were offered a framework for negotiations and decided to suspend our action in April last year. We were not being offered anything other than talks and a number of us argued that we should not have suspended our action. But we lost that argument.

By the time of our local government conference in June 2006, the local elections having predictably led to even more political hostility from the local government employers, we debated proposals to resume strike action. These were narrowly defeated on the basis that we were seeking a judicial review.

In September we learned that the judicial review had failed and, we were told, it now appeared that the employers had not been negotiating in good faith. Our strike action had produced a modest improvement in the proportion of the workforce whose existing rights were to be protected – but we had not achieved the objectives which we had set for ourselves.

Although we were assured that our campaign had not lost momentum nevertheless we were told it was to be stepped up. So we lobbied MPs on 22 November.

On 23 November Phil Woolas announced that he was tabling Regulations. We condemned him and called for further time for talks. He seemed to back down.

We had some more talks and, as they continued, Phil Woolas tabled the Regulations. These offer no more in the way of protecting the rights and benefits of those who have lost out during this dispute, and although they offer some long awaited positive changes (paid for with increased contributions) they include new detrimental changes also.

We could have started a strike ballot today with a view to taking strike action ahead of the implementation of the Regulations but no, that decision is to be put off until 8 February, so that if we do ballot for strike action we won’t be able to strike ahead of 1 April.

We don’t want to rush anything…

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