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

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
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If Jeremy Corbyn does win, the Greens should shut up shop

If self-described socialists continue to organise outside of the Labour party, they risk depriving the left's main outlet of both talent and voters, warns Michael Chessum.

It could all be rash complacency, but for much of left thoughts have already begun to focus on the reality of a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In the Labour left, the air is swirling with new projects – to back Corbyn up as leader, to organise the membership against parts of the PLP if necessary, to bring Labour into social movements and social movements into Labour. But outside Labour, too, the wider left is waking up to discover the entirely different reality that could be posed by a sharp left turn in leadership. In the Green Party, and especially among those on the left of the party, there is increasing pressure to find a formal working arrangement with Corbyn’s Labour, much of which is reflected in Caroline Lucas’s open letter in the Independent last week. An electoral pact is, apparently, already on the table.

Lucas’s call for an electoral pact is a pretty honest gesture, and will not be entirely uncontroversial in her own party; it is certainly worth much more than, as some more cynical onlookers in Labour have put it, “please don’t run against me in Brighton Pavillion”. It could also be significant in terms of electoral arithmetic: after boundary changes, and in any tight election, Labour will need the 3.8 per cent of the vote that the Greens got at the last election.  But while Lucas and other leftwingers in the Green Party are at least acknowledging the issue, there is a danger that they will avoid a more fundamental question: if Corbyn wins, does it really make sense for self-described socialists in the Green Party to continue a separate existence outside of Labour at all?

Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend. Across Europe, democratic socialism is undergoing a split: yesterday’s “realists”, who argue for an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the austerity politics that follows it like clockwork, are on one side; on the other is an assortment of socialists and social democrats who argue for something else. Mass anti-austerity politics has not been a one-party affair in the UK: it was built from the ground up by students, workers and community campaigns; it was road-tested in Scotland; and it has been formulated into policy from a variety of angles, as well as by the Corbyn campaign itself. But now, in the face of the realities presented by five more years in opposition, the vital political expression of the anti-austerity movement seems to have come to fruition in the Labour Party.

This fact will leave one of the largest sections of the organised left – the Green left – disorientated and unsure of what to do. Some socialists and leftwingers in the Green Party are there on the basis of a genuine conviction that the green movement, rather than the labour movement, is their political home. But for the vast bulk of those drawn to the Green left – many of them freshly recruited from recent social movements, others exiles from Labour under Blair – the purpose of the Green left is premised largely on the idea that a credible party-political alternative was needed, and that an anti-austerity surge would be impossible inside the Labour Party. This premise is now ebbing away.

The race is now on for the true believers to convince their periphery of the virtues of remaining in the Green Party after Corbyn wins. Many may yet be convinced, and the Labour left should not be complacent about recruiting a sudden tide of departing Greens.  But for those who joined because they wanted to intervene into mainstream politics from the left, there should be no doubt as to where the big fights will now happen, and where those committed to having them should go.

The incorporation of elements of the radical left’s core constituency into the Greens was always a peculiarity of recent British history. Had it become a sustainable arrangement and grown into a faint British Syriza, it would have made the Green Party of England and Wales unique in Europe, where ecologist and green parties usually sit distinctly and uneasily next to their far-left counterparts.

Much of the uneasiness that characterises the relationship between green parties and radical left groupings in other countries is about ideas, but much of it is also about tribalism – the simple fact that they have separate organisations which need to be different, and which breed differences in approach as often as they reflect them. If either the Green left or the Labour left are not careful, this tribalism will replicate itself, weakening everyone and dividing the left for no particularly coherent political reason.

That is why it is so significant that figures as senior as Caroline Lucas are already making overtures to Corbyn’s Labour. However, there is a danger that behind the positive gestures lie a serious of less friendly assumptions: that any electoral pact is temporary, is designed to build and promote the existence of the two separate parties, and would end upon the introduction of a proportional voting system – a move which, although positive in itself, would further entrench the fault lines between the Green and Labour lefts.

There are numerous ways that this could be overcome which would avoid the Greens simply dissolving themselves or quietly surrendering their politics. If it carried majority support in the party, the Green Party could reach the same arrangement with Labour that the Co-operative Party has: it would have its own structures, and would run Green-Labour candidates in places where it won the selection inside the local Labour Party. If there is no majority for such an arrangement, socialist Greens who want a higher degree of unity with Labour could form a faction, first within the Greens, and, if they continued to lose the argument, they could break away to form a platform in Labour.

As the seemingly impossible becomes a reality, there will be all kinds of realignments in the political space that the Labour left and Green left both claim to occupy – not to mention a potential split on Labour’s right wing. The best hope for a healthy realignment of the British left lies in an honest exchange of ideas; a newly democratised and pluralistic Labour Party which embraces – rather than excludes – political energy formerly to its left; and a willingness on the part of external political forces to orientate themselves towards Labour as the political expression of a mass movement. Those forces should involve the left wing of the Green Party.