Why we plan to strike on 30 November

Raising pension contributions is a hardship tax on public sector workers to pay down the deficit.

A man walks past a sign held by striking public sector workers on June 30, 2011
Source: Getty Images

Millions of public sector workers are gearing up for the biggest strike in living memory. Government ministers have pushed paramedics, teaching assistants, dinner ladies, nurses and social workers into taking action with their unprecedented attack on pensions.

We are strong, united and determined in our action - and we know we can count on the wider Labour movement for support. UNISON has said from the start that we want to reach a negotiated settlement, and that still stands. UNISON is willing to take part in scheme specific talks, right up until 30 November and beyond - we want a firm offer.

Our members voted decisively for action, but it's not a decision that they took lightly. Most UNISON members are low paid women in the caring professions. They go to work day in, day out, to make their communities better places in which to live and work. Indeed, with pay frozen at a time of stubbornly high inflation, and with Christmas just round the corner, they can ill afford to lose a day's wages. Their vote shows the colour of their anger over ministers' pensions plans to make them work longer and pay more, all for less in their retirement, coming on on top of heavy job and service cuts.

Public sector workers have already been stung by promises made in Parliament that were never delivered. In his first Emergency Budget, George Osborne promised public sector workers earning less than £21,000 a £250 pay boost - easing the pain of the pay freeze. But for low paid local government workers, this money has never materialised. They've been stuck on the pay freeze for two years, which could stretch to three, stretching family budgets to the limit.

There is no public sector pensions crisis - only four years ago, unions negotiated new schemes to make them affordable and sustainable for the long term. The schemes include a cap and share arrangement in health, so that any increase in costs would have to be borne by employees. The reforms also included a higher retirement age of 65, and other measures including higher contributions from members of between 5 and 8%.

These reforms have meant that the cost of public sector pensions, as a proportion of GDP, will fall, costs have been reduced even more by the switch to using CPI rather than RPI to calculate the annual increase in pensions payments. Both the health and local government schemes are in good shape, with billions more coming in than has to be paid out in pensions every year. The local government scheme also provides a huge boost to the private sector, its funds are worth £140 billion, and own 1.75% of the UK's top FTSE companies.

Under the proposals, the low paid will receive only just enough to keep them above the threshold for means tested benefits when they do retire. The average pension in local government is £3,800 a year, but for women, it's less than £2,800 - just £56 a week. More than half of women pensioners in the NHS receive a pension of less than £3,500 a year.

The real scandal is that two-thirds of private sector workers do not get a single penny from their employers towards their pension, whilst top bosses award themselves generous pensions. It is in no one's interest to see workers in the public or private sector living in poverty and relying on state benefits when they retire - that is just storing up more trouble for the future.

We do not believe a penny of the money raised will go towards pensions - it's nothing but a hardship tax on public sector workers to pay down the deficit. The way to rebuild our economy is not to take more money out of hardworking people's pockets. The austerity agenda is killing growth, boosting unemployment - fuelling the downturn. Our members are striking for their pensions - but their campaign for a fairer economic plan, founded in social democratic principles, will continue long after we reach a deal.

Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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