The battle over public sector pensions is at a critical juncture, with different unions adopting radically different positions, writes UCU activist Des Freedman.

pensions protester

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which played a major role in last June’s first wave of national strike action, announced on Monday that 91.6% of its members had accepted the government’s ‘final’ offer in a consultation. The National Union of Teachers (NUT), on the other hand, has just released details of its poll of over 11,000 members, 93% of whom agreed with the union’s decision not to sign up the offer and ‘to seek further improvements’.

Interestingly, while the BBC flagged up the ATL’s vote (remaining silent thus far on the NUT’s position), it neglected to mention that the decision to accept was based on a poll of just 4690 members, only 5.7% of eligible members.

Similarly, while PCS and Unite have rejected the ‘Heads of Agreement’ deal, UNISON and GMB have decided that this is likely to be the ‘best offer’ in the current circumstances.

National Executive members in the University and College Union (UCU), representing staff in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme in UCU, recently voted to press ahead with a one-day strike on 1 March, while UCU members in the ‘old’ universities on the USS pension scheme voted on Tuesday to ‘suspend’ their industrial action (after the employers offered limited concessions and the prospects of further negotiations).

Given the unity demonstrated in the magnificent strike on 30 November, this is—to put it mildly—a messy picture.

The starting point remains the fact that the government and employer assault on public sector pensions is an attack on millions of workers, many of them low-paid, for whom a decent pension is not a ‘gold plated’ luxury but simply ‘deferred wages’. However, it is also clear that we need an honest appraisal of the situation facing all of us fighting to defend our pensions, in the light of the partial fragmentation of the movement that emerged so powerfully in November.

In this situation, we need maximum unity amongst those who continue to reject the government’s decision to increase pensions in line with CPI and not RPI, to increase significantly employee contributions and to raise the retirement age. There is little point in rushing to ‘name the day’ for the next 24 hour strike if we end up with different days.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, argued recently that if there is likely to be fewer of us taking industrial action than there was in November, then the action will have to be bigger and more sustained. Our action so far, notably the mass walkout and accompanying protests in November, has forced concessions from government and, in the case of USS, our employers.

We will need further coordinated action—not necessarily confined to one-day strikes—if we are to apply the sort of pressure that will result in a defeat for government and employers. If we are capable of mounting this level of action, then we can defend pension provision for millions of people.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.