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Pensions strike challenges austerity

The third major one-day strike in six months in defence of public sector pensions has received tremendous support from trade unionists around Britain. Over 400,000 civil servants, lecturers, health staff and prison officers have joined the action.

They have mounted picket lines at court buildings, job centres, museums, galleries and universities and organised rallies in major towns and cities. Prison staff in England are banned from striking but have defied the law to hold protests.

But with the ConDem government dismissive of the strike and refusing to reopen negotiations, the question is how can public sector workers win their struggle?

Lecturers are already paying far higher contributions unilaterally imposed by employers after negotiations stalled. Legislation announced yesterday will enshrine in law changes that mean working longer, paying more and getting less on retirement.

Major unions like Unison and the GMB have signalled a massive retreat since they joined the November 30 strikes. Together with the Trades Union Congress, these unions have weakened the united front displayed last winter.

As a result, there is a kind of stalemate or stand-off between those who want to continue the struggle and the government. Unions like the civil servants PCS won’t sign away their members’ interests; and the government won’t reopen negotiations.

This deadlock expresses exactly the real state of affairs and not only when it comes to pensions.

On the one side, is a government (with the support of Labour), insisting that public sector pensions are “unaffordable” a) because people are living longer b) there is a massive deficit to pay off.

While on the other side, millions of working people reject the government and all of its austerity policies, and have made this clear by voting for and taking part in mass strikes.

As Mark Serwotka of the PCS civil servants’ union says, it is wrong for the government to make workers pay the price for a financial crisis they did not create:

Ministers are making unpopular, unnecessary and unfair cuts to the livelihoods of public servants to pay off a deficit caused by greed and recklessness in the financial sector, and for more than 12 months have refused to negotiate on the key issues of paying more and working longer for a worse pension.

But “fairness” has little to do with it, unfortunately. Austerity is an attempt to rescue a floundering economy by cutting living standards as well as the national debt that has soared since the recession kicked in.

The coalition is desperate to appease the financial markets first and foremost at our expense. And they have no intention of changing course, despite the drubbing they got at last week’s local elections.

In one way or another, this is the story right round Europe. There is no give or compromise in the situation, however militant the strikes and protests. Elections in themselves bring no relief, as the experience in Greece shows.

Governments that have fallen as a result of the capitalist crisis have been replaced by others dedicated to carrying on with austerity. Who could doubt that Labour, were it in office, would not be carrying out similar policies to the ConDems?

Yet the state’s grip on affairs is not as tight as it seems. In London, thousands of police are taking to the streets over job cuts and reduced pensions which may have weakened their loyalties, if only for the moment.

The turmoil at the highest levels of the state and politics can only intensify as the global economic crisis deteriorates. These institutions increasingly lack legitimacy and clearly have no plausible policies.

An open challenge to their power and the status quo is without question a credible opportunity. That would also create the conditions for ensuring that all workers have decent pensions.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
10 May 2012

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