Northern Ireland: Pensions – the fight must continue

Across the public and private sectors the scandal of employers’ attacks on pensions has become a touchstone issue for workers and unions.

The latest attacks on pensions in Unilever, Shell and the public service schemes in education, health, transport, universities, councils and the civil service show just how widespread the cuts have become across society.  As workers fight to defend their right to an already meagre income in old age the employers are using the cover of the recession to launch new attacks on pensions.  Having been bubbling for months with demonstrations and strikes in education and the civil service the issue finally exploded on to the streets of Northern Ireland and Britain on 30 November.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, over 100,000 workers in Northern Ireland joined two million workers in Britain in a magnificent one-day public sector strike involving over 20 trade unions.  The 30 November action comes after a break of more than two decades in any mass strikes. Even by the most conservative estimates, the campaign leading up the 30 November strike was extremely significant.

A huge amount of activity was carried out by activists, including the Socialist Party which distributed thousands of leaflets into workplaces in preparation for the action.  Strike committees were formed around the country and on the day public services were brought to a halt as workers flexed their industrial muscle.  Picket lines sprang up everywhere and in Belfast there were two or three picket lines in almost every street.  One thousand demonstrations were held across Britain and in county towns across the North.  Belfast and Derry city centres became a sea of trade union flags and banners as thousands marched and rallied.

One noticeable feature of the action was the increasingly political nature of the strike.  It was clear that in the minds of many workers 30 November was an opportunity to have a go at the hated Tories and their Lib-Dem coalition partners.  In Northern Ireland too, the conflict between workers and politicians was evident.  As the Assembly parties press ahead to implement cuts, their room for manoeuver is becoming increasingly limited.  Even the old sectarian divide and rule card played by both nationalist and unionist politicians and the cover provided for them by some senior trade union officials is not enough to pull the wool over the eyes of workers.

Assembly implements Tory cuts

It is becoming clearer for many working class people that the Northern Ireland Assembly politicians are committed to implementing the Con-Dem government’s programme of austerity. That means that when the chips are down the Stormont politicians believe, like the Tories and the Lib-Dems, that workers must pay for the economic crisis.

On the 30 November a number of small but important events illustrated the growing tensions between workers and the Assembly politicians.  At Stormont some of the Tory’s Ulster Unionist Party partners seemed to take malicious delight in breaking the picket line causing a great deal of anger amongst workers.  In West Belfast Sinn Fein were told by strikers, in no uncertain terms, to take themselves off and in Newry one trade union speaker made good use of her speech and told politicians who are introducing cuts while pretending to be a friend of the strikers that “you can’t ride two horses with the one arse”.  This received enthusiastic applause from the crowd.  All this would indicate that many trade unionists are beginning to get sick of the politicians and the approach of some trade union leaders who irrespective of the cuts maintain their cosy relationship with the Stormont parties.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the Assembly parties are no friends of the working class, and struggles against the cuts become more widespread then support will grow for the idea of building a new working class anti-sectarian political party.

30 November was a day rich in lessons for workers and the trade unions. For a few hours a small part of the potential power of the working class in Northern Ireland was on display.  Such was the power of the strike that even David Cameron was forced to acknowledge that it was significant.

Given the success of the action and the obvious momentum that was building for further bigger strikes it seemed all the more surprising that within days of mobilising millions of workers, the leadership of some unions, UNISON and GMB, scrambled to break up the united front of trade unions and accept any deal on offer.  For those who had been more deeply involved in the preparation for action it was somewhat less of a surprise.

As Socialist Party members had stressed at union meetings before the strike, many of the trade union leaders had been forced into a position of leading the strike, not from any commitment to the struggle but by the massive pressure coming from the rank and file activists in the unions.  They faced a choice of leading the strike or potentially being swept aside. The fact that they had called the action did not represent a fundamental change in their outlook. They remain linked by economic and political ties to austerity as the solution to the capitalist economic crisis.  Cutbacks in public spending and public services is their solution to the crisis and disagreement with the Con-Dem government is on the scale and speed of implementation of the cuts.

It is therefore no great surprise that following the 30 November strike some union leaders moved quickly to cobble together separate deals at separate negotiations.  These Tory deals have not resolved one single issue that led workers into strike action.  If the agreement reached in local government stays in place it will mean workers will work longer, pay more into their pension and get less in their pension when they retire.  A similar miserable deal is on offer in health and all other parts of the public services.  For civil servants, there is nothing new on offer. All the elements that caused the strike are still there. The only thing that has changed in some areas is that the cuts would not be implemented for another year.

Reject the deals – continue the struggle

There is still time to re-forge the united campaign of industrial action to defeat the pension cuts. The deals presented by the Con-Dem government are not worth the paper they are printed on.  A massive campaign must be waged in UNISON and GMB to reject the deals.  This struggle will be hard fought as the old leadership cling tooth and nail to their waning authority but in the long run the overall effect of such a campaign would be to strengthen the unions internally as members would see the need to get active and engage in a struggle to establish fighting democratic unions.  That would then provide a launching pad for a renewed united offensive on pensions.

Clearly the other unions should not just wait for such a development.  They should move as quickly as possible to draw up a united plan for all the unions who are prepared to fight at this time to take the struggle to the government.

As a consequence of these events questions have been raised by some workers regarding the issue of “parity” – the way in which most public sector workers are employed on similiar or identical terms and conditions across Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. For decades this arrangement has worked to the benefit of public sector workers. There is strength in numbers and a united workforce can almost always win more than a workforce which negotiates separate agreements. Moving away from a parity arrangement is not a step that serious trade unionists should or would take lightly. In the coming period this possibility will be discussed in some of the unions, and Northern Ireland only deals, which work to the benefit of working class people may be on the table (though this is very unlikely). But in most circumstances maintaining deals which maximise wages, terms and conditions across the public sector should be our aim. In the short term all public sector trade union activists need to fight in their union to ensure that the current offers on pensions are rejected.

An opportunity now exists to build a wider struggle against all cuts. Workers have proved that they are prepared to fight to defend services and jobs.  The campaign must be developed further to ensure that unions the unemployed and communities link together to fight back against the misery and devastation that the Con-Dem government and the Assembly parties are visiting on the working class.

On 30 November a page of Northern Irish labour movement history was turned. After 20 years the sleeping giant of the organised working class has begun to stir.  All the attempts to rewrite and distort the events of that day, to sell out the pensions struggle and manoeuvres by the grey men and women of the trade union bureaucracy can only slow and disorientate the emergence of the movement. A new period has opened up in which the working class will engage in struggles against the government, the Assembly and the employers to defend public services, jobs, pay and pensions.

Trade union activists must draw lessons from 30 November and the next period in this struggle. There is a need to get organised in all unions, to build powerful oppositions to the right-wing trade union leaders who would sell-out our struggles and meekly accept austerity and mass unemployment, and replace them with workers’ leaders who will put the interests of the working class before all else.