The pensions confrontation clock is counting down. Twelve weeks from now, at the end of October, the leaders of the trade union movement will either have to put up or shut up in the wake of yesterday’s provocation by the ConDem government.
While negotiations are still ongoing, the coalition unilaterally announced that more than two million NHS workers, teachers and civil servants will pay £1.1bn in extra contributions from April 2012. They are just the first of three annual increases planned by the government and amount to a substantial cut in take home pay.
What is clear is that the government is actually preparing for a showdown, using divide and rule tactics by exempting lower paid workers, while challenging union leaders to take up the gauntlet.
Leaders of the PCS civil servants union and the major teaching unions who mounted major strike action on June 30, expressed anger at the announcement and declared their readiness to resume the fight. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the proposals "made a mockery" of the ongoing talks. "These highly detailed proposals show that the government has made its mind up and is not negotiating seriously," he said.
The Fire Brigades Union said it was making preliminary arrangements for a strike ballot, warning that industrial action looked "increasingly likely" in the autumn. "Members have taken strike action before to defend their pensions and will do so again," said NUT teachers’ union leader Christine Blower.
At TUC headquarters, however, there is little sign of a parallel determination. Dave Prentis, general secretary of the biggest public sector union Unison, accused the government of putting the talks in “jeopardy” by their ”naïve tactics” in making public how much workers will have to pay in higher contributions.
“The government must take its responsibilities seriously, and stop treating these talks like some kind of playground game,” he said. No threat there then, even though the Unison conference gave Prentis a mandate to call a strike ballot over pensions.
From the other big unions, there was similar reluctance to take up the challenge. Unite, the largest union in the country with 250,000 members in the public sector, said the government’s announcement was “an exercise in ineptitude” by ministers.
Assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail stated the blindlingly obvious when she said that the coalition was “not interested in genuine negotiations, but just in pushing through these changes”. And, then what?
The statement concluded
The three big unions – Unison, Unite and the GMB, which described the proposals as “reprehensible” and left at that – are closely aligned with the fortunes of Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. He opposed the June 30 strikes and clearly has no intention of supporting co-ordinated action being demanded by Serwotka and other smaller unions if and when negotiations fail.
The big three are self-evidently determined to reach an accommodation with the government and leave others, which are not affiliated to Labour, to sink or swim.
In the end, the major unions may not get the opportunity to make a deal. The coaltion does not intend to give way on a policy that is central to its plans for reducing the budget deficit that results from the capitalist economic and financial crisis.
Their bluff may be called, leading to calls for a general strike over pensions. Such an eventuality is simply not under consideration by the TUC. As in 1926, the year of the last general strike, all the preparation is on the side of the government and the state. When push came to shove after nine days of massively supported action, the TUC leaders sued for peace and sold the miners out. This time the betrayal may well come earlier.