It shouldn’t come as a surprise that on the 30th of June, 4 major unions are planning to go on strike over plans to slash public sector pension packages. This includes the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the University and College Union, and the Public and Commercial Services, and will involve around 750 000 people. In Scotland, this strike is more limited, involving the Public and Commercial Services Union which comprises about 20 000 civil servants. Wanting to know more, I found myself at Edinburgh’s Unite the Resistance Meeting, called by the Right to Work campaign last night.
Regarding the pensions in Scotland (I don’t have the space or the knowledge to discuss the whole issue here) the figures are quite stark. According to figures I was given by a PCS delegate, the implications of the scheme mean that people will be expected to work 3 years longer, contributing £40 more per month. While this might not jump out at you right away, the government’s proposals will mean a total loss of £161 440 over 20 years of retirement. This is, naturally, alongside a wage freeze for public sector workers.
Two things should be clarified here. The first one is obvious: across the whole UK, the cuts are politically motivated rather than economically necessary. As Johann Hari has repeatedly pointed out, British debt has been higher for 200 of the last 250 years, as a proportion of GDP, than it is now. If you dispute this, as some do, consider this: the cuts aim at reducing the taxpayer contribution by £2.8 billion by 2014-15. This occurs in a context where, as Tax Research UK have argued, tax evasion costs the UK £70 billion a year. Taking the highly publicized Vodafone case as an example, £4.8 billion in tax has been avoided due to the dispute, which started in 2000, being settled by HM Revenue and Customs. With HM Revenue and Customs numbers already slashed by 25 000, it’s clear that the choices being made here are political, not economic. The second point is this. Even if you are convinced by the rhetoric that the public sector unions are wrong to strike, given the relatively good pensions packages they currently enjoy – as if having two thirds of private sector workers currently receiving no employer contribution to their pension was something to emulate – there is every reason to suppose that this is only the beginning. As Richard Seymour points out.the Tories were extremely strategic in their approach to conflict with unions under Thatcher, defeating smaller unions first and demoralizing the larger unions. It is paramount that unity is maintained, and Tories are not allowed to win these early battles.
In this context, the meeting’s range of delegates was inspiring. Delegates from Unite, UK Uncut (now officially endorsed by the PCS) the Black Triangle (an organization representing disabled people) and Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Education Institute of Scotland, were all present. For a relatively unpublicized meeting at relatively short notice, attendance was high. Edinburgh Uncut will be present on the picket lines on Thursday, and a planning an as yet unconfirmed action on the following Sunday. As we saw on March 26th, there is a real possibility of unity between trade unions and the ‘civilian’ population. Many support a higher pension packet for public sector workers and there is some support among the public for strike action (I’d look here and here) so there is every reason to believe this is a viable possibility.
What was also striking in the meeting was the sense of optimism and long-term planning that was present. Almost everyone who spoke, whether delegate or attendee, was completely clear about the bigger picture. The upcoming strikes are simply an opening salvo in a larger conflict with the coalition that, for all intents and purposes, will continue until one side wins. David Cameron appears somewhat rattled about the upcoming strikes and, unlike Thatcher, seems ill-prepared. He has, for example, done little to ingratiate himself with repressive forces of the state by, for example, making cuts to the police force. The coalition is remarkably unpopular, and there is of course intense pressure on the Liberal Democrats which suggests that it may not survive. Of course, Labour hardly offer much of an alternative with Ed Miliband firmly to the right with regard to strike action. There are therefore two tasks ahead. One is to maintain the momentum following J30, and the other is to use the ongoing struggle as a basis for reconstructing a political base from which to act collectively in all of our interests.
What’s going on in Edinburgh tomorrow:
Edinburgh Uncut are taking part in solidarit-tea, i.e. taking breakfast to picket lines, and encourage you to do the same. There is a rally on the mound at 10:15am in support of striking workers. Some activists from Uncut are also taking the 11:30 train to Glasgow to attend the PCS Rally taking place there and the Black Triangle Campaign demonstration. The Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty is going to leafleting A4E on Earl Grey Street between 8:30am and 11am (near Tollcross) and there is another solidarity rally on the Mound at 17:30 for people who haven’t been on strike that day. A complete list of the pickets in Edinburgh can be found here.