BRITAIN: Massive public sector strike looms

Issue 

Alex Miller

Public sector unions nationwide are balloting their members over a proposed one-day strike on March 23. The strikes could involve up to 1.4 million public sector workers, and would be hugely embarrassing to the Labour government headed by PM Tony Blair, given that it is likely that a general election will be called in May.

The strikes could involve local government offices, the National Health Service, the fire brigades, the civil service, teachers and lecturers, social workers, tax officers, driving instructors, customs and excise officials, and many others.

The ballot is being held in response to workers' anger over the Blair government's proposals to cut public spending by slashing pension schemes and retirement benefits. The January 27 Scottish Socialist Voice reported that the government is calling for the normal retirement age in the Fire Service to be raised from 50 to 55. It also reported that the government was planning to raise the retirement age of NHS workers to 65 and to end their Final Salary Pension Scheme.

The government has similar plans for civil servants in England and Wales and for local government workers. Richie Venton, the SSP's national workplace organiser, told the February 10 Scottish Socialist Voice: "Not content with condemning pensioners to the princely state pension of £79.60 a week, the New Labour government now wants to raise the retirement age by five years across the board. Even on the pathetic pension level suffered by our senior citizens after a life of work, that means a cut of £20,000 each over five years!

"Pensions are deferred wages, paid for by pension contributions. The Labour Party is launching wage cuts by any other name, just as stinking and unacceptable. And the fury of members is impelling union leaders — including some who crave for a pre-election truce with New Labour — to take action."

Unions balloting their members include the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the public service union UNISON, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), the manufacturing, technical & skilled persons' union (AMICUS), the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT), and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).

Alan Brown, a member of the national executive committee of the PCS, told the February 10 Voice: "This could be the biggest action in a generation. Already 1.4 million workers will be balloted, and other unions may join in when they see the scale of the action. Our deferred wages are being stolen. We need to get out and win the ballots to send a clear message to the government that we are not prepared to stand back while pensions are attacked and the public sector decimated."

On the February 12 BBC News Online, Mark Serwotka, the leader of the UK's largest union UNISON, was quoted as saying: "For a government that lectures everyone on choice — choice on public service, choice on this and choice on that — isn't it ironic that they're saying to public sector workers there is no choice, If you want the pension you were promised when you started you must work for an extra five years — that is working until people drop. In the 21st century, it's completely unacceptable." The SSP has issued a special broadsheet, the Public Sector Workers Voice, which points out that the British government spends only 5% of its GDP on pensions, compared with the EU average of 11%.

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
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