Friday, 18 March 2011

Action on pensions would be part of the anti-cuts campaign

It was only to be expected that the report of the Hutton review into pensions should mean the opportunity for big business supporters to have another go at the fair pensions provision in the public sector, but it is a pity that an otherwise balanced and well-informed columnist, Iain MacWhirter joins such unusual attackers (Sunday Herald - 13 March 2011). This is the latest in a series of his irregular attacks on the pensions of our nurses, police, classroom assistants, social carers et al, and seems to be on the point of becoming obsessive. He isn’t alone in these attacks, but they usually come from well-known free marketeers and private sector defenders, not independent (in the true meaning of the word) commentators.  
He also seems to think that Trade Unions work ‘top down’ and that all any General Secretary has to do is snap their fingers and the membership walks out. Quite the reverse is usually true. Union members - particularly those in the public sector - put up with a lot before becoming angry enough to strike. But attacks on their the pension they agreed to, contribute to and depend on, is something that does irate them sufficiently. Any TU leader would be well advised to think carefully before suggesting a line similar to Iain’s.
Unfortunately, in the past, Iain’s attacks have not exactly been accompanied by any clear arguments or indeed factual justification - he has in the past been known to quote approvingly from that bastion of anti-public sector misinformation - the Tax Dodgers’ Alliance in support of his campaign. This time he uses more reputable sources, including  the Institute of Fiscal Studies, although the figures he comes up with do seem similarly questionable. In particular the government figure of £7,800 for an average public sector pension seems very high, when we know that the average in one of the biggest schemes (Local Government) is only £4,000+. How is this average almost doubled? Certainly other public sector schemes are unlikely to vastly inflate the average, given that they are all based on salary, and that no public sector pay is that large. And the small number of very well-paid public sector staff (yes, there are a few, mainly in the Civil Service and NHS schemes) are unlikely to raise the overall average.
However, one way this figure might have been increased is if the pensions awarded to senior private sector bankers who have been bailed out by public sector investment are taken into account. I don’t know if this has occurred, but I have seen other figures from think tanks and others that now include these people as part of the ‘public sector’. This is significant in two ways. One, it distorts the real cost of public service provision by adding in the inflated bonuses and other private sector waste, thus assisting the arguments of the ConDems and others who point to these inflated figures as justification for ‘cutting the public sector’, although almost never the ‘new’ part of it. On the other hand it does provide a useful highlight for those who wish to see it, illuminating just what sort of salaries and pensions senior managers in the private sector receive. Whatever the reason, that figure needs further explanation.
Of course most people working in the private sector get far less than either figure, and Iain’s view appears to be ‘because we private sector staff have had our pensions robbed, then the public sector should as well’. Bitterness - however well justified - has never been a particularly good basis for public policy decisions, and is not so here. It is true that many decent, affordable, private sector pension schemes have been shut to new entrants/ removed completely/replaced by far cheaper (to the employer) schemes (delete where applicable), but that does not mean we should accept the demands of the same robbers who perpetrated these scandals to do the same to our public service workers. 
The real ‘pensions apartheid’ is the difference between the level of pensions enjoyed by many private sector directors and senior managers and the levels that they are now forcing their workers to accept. One of the reasons for the private sector average being so low, is the closures and cutbacks that private sector directors and managers have forced their workers to accept. Decent pensions for our workforces in both the public and private sector should be a right, and employers should be forced to face up to their responsibility. Where they don’t we should support workers in the fight to achieve and maintain a decent pension - whether they are in the private or public sector. Indeed one of the strongest private sector dispute in recent years - at INEOS in Grangemouth - was on exactly this issue.
Should the attack on public sector pensions advocated by Lord Hutton lead to an industrial dispute (and the leader of the largest public service union has already called for the government to negotiate), public service workers should be supported in their campaigns, in exactly the same way as private sector workers fighting for a decent pension. Hopefully this co-ordinated attack (and let no-one doubt it is co-ordinated) will be met by a co-ordinated response across the public and private sector workforce, starting with a massive demonstration on March 26. The stories of ConDem scab preparations to undermine and defeat the workforce in the event of public service strikes remind all of us of a certain age of Thatcher and the miners. No-one is pretending that public service workers and their unions are miners, and any major dispute will have to be handled with great subtlety. But it WILL BE part of the overall struggle against the false economy being adopted by the governments in the UK. To suggest that low-paid public sector workers should simply sit back and accept these attacks will be damaging to the overall campaign and, far from threatening future joint action with the community over cuts, could help to make the links stronger.

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