Thank you to everyone who came to our public meeting on Monday. For those of you who couldn’t make it, we have reproduced Mark Serwotka’s (General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, PCS) talk in full below. We hope you will find it a useful resource.
Can I congratulate the organisers of the meeting. What I thought I would do is not just talk about pensions, but to actually talk about austerity and cuts in general and what it is that we need to consider doing about it and in so doing just give I think an analysis of where we are pretty clear of what we require. I’m happy to say I am here speaking on behalf of my union, I’m proud to do so and my union I’m proud to say has been very much at the forefront of criticising not just this government but the government before it; the Labour government that actually started many of these attacks and paved the way for many of the things that the coalition is doing and we pride ourselves on saying that we’re here to stand up for working people and PCS members and if that means that we offend politicians, whether in the Labour Party, Tories or LibDems then so be it, we think we have to say what needs saying and organise from there.
The scale of what we face
Unemployment and job losses
So I wanted to start really by just reflecting on the scale of what we face. I know this will be apparent to everybody in York, but I believe it is always worth reminding ourselves just how massive the assault of people at the moment is: on jobs we have the highest level of women unemployment for 19 years, we have record levels of youth unemployment, unemployment levels that are moving towards pre millennium. Still the government is intent on cutting more public sector jobs, we’re losing 4,000 jobs every month at the moment in the civil service, record levels of job loss, 120,000 are due to go by 2015 and that’s our share of the 710,000 jobs that will go from the public sector itself at a time of mass unemployment that in itself I think is shameful.
The government pretends that there’s a public private divide, and that if we take a hit in the public sector, the private sector will somehow will be better off. The reality from the Treasury’s forecast is they’re predicting 600,000 job losses in the private sector as a direct result of cuts in public spending, and therefore job losses could get to 1.3 million across public and private in the next 2 years. Now I think that’s one reason in of itself amongst many I would say that starts from the point that I consider myself as a public sector trade unionist, I consider myself as a trade unionist wanting to stand up for all people at work. Therefore we have to say the divide is not public private, the divide is the haves and the have-nots and we stand for the have-nots whether they are in work, out of work, in education, on welfare, or in the public or private sector.
At a time we’re getting these mass cuts, we’ve got pay restraint that Mervyn King himself as the governor of the bank of England said takes us back to what we say in the 1930s. Mervyn King is on record as saying he’s surprised there hasn’t been more anger about it. If you’re in the public sector you’ve had 2 years of 0% pay growth, now you’re going to have 2 years of 1% and on top of that, if you’re unlucky enough to live in economic disadvantaged parts of the country you’re going to get a regional local market pay variant that is designed to depress pay levels even more. What that means for most people is that we will be 16% worst off in 2 years time than we were 2 years ago, just taking into account inflation.
On pensions we all know the story: work longer pay more get less. Extra contributions about to come in for many people from the first of April, not a penny of which goes into anybody’s pension fund – all goes direct to the treasury. It is not a pensions contribution in reality it is a tax on public sector workers as a way of raising extra revenue. The government has already committed to raising it this year, next year and the year after, and if we don’t win our battle to defend our pensions there’s nothing to stop any future chancellor deciding that a good way of raising revenue is to continue to put up public sector pensions. So there is a principal here that we need to fight to defend, that there should not be pension contribution rises where they are not justified by what’s going on in anyone’s pension scheme, and they should not take the form of punitive taxation for public sector workers.
Cuts to services, privatisation of the NHS, high tuition fees and the RPI, CPI confusion.
Now if we look at the broader situation. On top of all of that we’re seeing massive cuts on services: councils the length and breadth of the UK making choices about where the cuts will fall: whether it’s in leisure facilities, whether it’s in care facilities, whether it’s in education. Making choices that in reality worsen people’s living conditions and their communities, that’s happening the length and breadth of the country. On top of that we’re seeing the privatisation of the NHS. With a change in the NHS that everyone in the NHS opposes, but the government has arrogantly decided to press ahead. On education we’re going to see people priced out of the choice of going into further or higher education as tuition fees are beginning to rise. And incidentally, isn’t it interesting, that when you pay your student debt back you pay the government RPI which is the highest level of inflation but when you get you’re pension from now on you’ll get CPI. Absolute proof that when they want money off us they charge us the top whack, when we need money off them they give us the bottom whack. Nothing to do with what’s the best level of inflation, absolutely about cost cutting and hitting people as hard as possible.
Cuts to welfare
But then we have what I think is probably if you had to pick what’s the worst, what I think is the single worst measure that the government is taking, which is an assault on welfare, on benefits and the welfare state. The government has already committed to 18 billion worth of cuts from the welfare budget. In the budget last week the chancellor sneaked out another announcement that says their going to now find another 10 billion pounds worth of cuts in welfare. Now that is 28 billion pounds, it is an absolutely astronomical sum. And we already know what they’re looking at, they’re looking at putting benefit caps to say you can’t go over a certain level of benefit. Instead of doing that why don’t they do the obvious thing which is to say if housing benefit is running out of control, what about capping the rents and saying to the landlords: “there’s no longer millions to be made, that we should be hitting you not the people who will now be forced out of houses in some parts of Britain because they cannot afford their rents when housing benefit is cut.” We’re seeing an attack on disabled people, on lone parents, on people who want to get back into work. And it’s just the start.
And I think we all of us have to say in the trade union movement, and campaigners the length and breadth of the country. We have to stand in solidarity with the unemployed and the disabled and the lone parents, because we fought for this welfare state and it’s an absolute disgrace that the government is now seeking to pare it back.
When you take a pause and think about that at the moment – I’m looking round the room and there’s some older people and some younger people – I don’t think however old you are we have ever seen a period like the period we are in: an economic crisis being used by the government to justify an assault on what we have got used to and fought for to take us back generations. That is how high the stakes are and that is being done by a government that has no mandate to do any of this, that is a coalition government that didn’t in either party’s manifesto put to those voting in the election what it planned to do, and have now stitched up a political opportunist project that said “we’re going to stick together through thick and thin and everybody else can pay the price.” And I think we have to have a political understanding of where we are in order to work out what it is we need to do to take us forward.
Now it seems to me some people think the LibDems at any point could crack, go back to their radical liberal roots, and say we got it wrong, it was all a nightmare and now we’ve seen the light. I have to say my analysis is the Liberal Democrats have sold their souls to be in power, and their analysis actually is we have to stick with it until the general election otherwise we face absolute melt down. And I say that as someone who’s had the misfortune of going to the last 2 LibDem conferences doing meetings for delegates hoping against hope that they would have said to me what they said when they were in opposition: they’re against welfare cuts, they’re against tuition fees, they’re against all the things they’re now doing. But I have to say what I found was quite depressing. It was people saying: “this is the price we have to pay if it wasn’t for us the Tories would be out of control and we’re sticking with it.” So I don’t think that we should be soft on the LibDems at all. I don’t think our strategy should be we can peel them away. I think we should be attacking them with as much vigour as we attack the Tories.
If we move onto the Tories. All I would say about the Tories is this. I lived through misses Thatcher’s government in South Wales when she closed down the steal industry, when she closed down the mining industry, when she banned unions in GCHQ. Nobody needs reminding how bad it was. But I think if you look at what’s being done this government is worse than the government of Margaret Thatcher, it is doing things that even Margaret Thatcher did not attempt to do. And they’re doing it because of the economic difficulties we face as a justification that everything has to be: “we’re in it together, and therefore you’ve just got to take the pane.” Now the arrogance of the Tories I think was really betrayed during the budget last week. Because you have to say – given the opinion polls, the pain that people are suffering – to have the arrogance of reducing the 50p rate of income tax for the super rich, meaning that in the same time minimum wage goes up 11p an hour, somebody earning 5 million pounds a year getting tax reduction of 250,000 pounds a year. Now if that isn’t putting the interests of the rich and the wealthy before the interests of everybody else I don’t know what is. But they did it. They did it because they believe at the moment they’re in power to carry on and do what they want. And I think that tells us that the game will not be persuading these people of a better course; we have to organise opposition that forces them to take a different direction, and that opposition must come from the trade union movement, from campaigning organisations, from coalitions in the community, that actually promise them for the lifetime of the parliament that we are going to carry on resisting in every way we can to make it as difficult as possible for them.
Which brings me to the last of the mainstream parties which is Labour. I don’t mean to cause anyone offence, but I do believe in speaking my mind. And we have to say that in this current situation the people of Britain, and the democratic system we have has never more been in need of an effective opposition. Given what the Tories and the LibDems are doing, we are crying out for politicians who will say “no”, who will argue for investment and growth against austerity, who will argue for the welfare state – not against it – and will argue for public services delivered with a public sector ethos rather than for the profit motive. That is what we need, and you have to say that at a time when opposition is more important than ever, the Labour party have been a desperately disappointing opposition.
Labour and subservience to the market
When Ed Miliband said he ultimately supported the pay freeze and that a lot of the cuts would have to stay. In my view he turned the hope that many people had that something else would be in offer; he turned the light off. He actually told people in that one moment that even if you can manage to get through to the election in 2015 don’t expect us to do something radically different. Now this shouldn’t really be a surprise, because the attacks on welfare, the attacks on the public sector were actually started by Labour when they were in government. It’s just this lot [the ConDem coalition] has taken it a whole lot further. And therefore what they did in that moment in my view, was to say to people: “if you believe in a political solution, if you believe in the opportunity to change things in the ballot box, then don’t think that voting for us is going to make a seed change.” Yes it will probably mean things are not quite as bad, yes I think most of us can accept, that if Labour were in power now they wouldn’t be doing everything that’s being done, but by their own recognition they would still be making massive cuts in public spending because they, like all main stream parties, believe the key to our economy is to keep the markets sweet and to have confidence in the financial institutions globally. Now the problem with our politics at the moment, is in the past people would have challenged that, people would have said it is people who should decide the policies, not markets. It is not right that unaccountable markets are choosing prime ministers in parts of Europe, and now we see governments without a single elected politician in them. That is just a vested interest that is continued to be perpetuated, that if we are not careful will mean all the big choices will result in whatever government saying austerity is the only way to keep the market sweet. What we need is politicians who will stand up and challenge the market, we need people to say, that in a modern economy it can’t be right that the essential financial institutions are acting as glorified loan sharks, who work on the exact same principal as loan sharks. A loan shark plays on the vulnerable, plays on the poor, gets people into debt, charges extortionate interest and then if you can’t pay it back, you get the bailiffs around at the door. The international financial institutions lend to people, charge rates of interest that they cannot possibly afford to pay back and then they demand an incredible price from nations. It’s why at the moment in Greece the Greek people have been told they may have to consider selling off their islands as well as privatising all of their main public services to keep the markets sweet. It seems to me, that if we all want to do is keep the markets sweet, we have to accept austerity because that is the price that the markets are actually demanding. We need politicians who should say things should be very different, that actually the solutions to our problem are not cuts and austerity, they’re investment and growth. We have 2 million families on social housing waiting list, we should build houses, we should reinstate the council school building program that Labour left this new government. We should put money into welfare and into infrastructure projects so it means people will be at work, not out of work. It’s not rocket science, and it’s what would have been the choice in Britain 50 years ago when the political consensus was different. So we need people to argue for something different.
And that means – I want to finish on this – that if our analysis is the government is arrogantly going to carry on, the LibDems are going to stick with them through the bitter end; they are determined to make working people and their communities pay while the rich people are let off. If we don’t believe that in 2015 there’s going to be a magical solution at the ballot box because the opposition is going to say: we will reverse most of it, all of it, or even some of it. Then actually the solution becomes clear. The solution is, that the people who are being affected by all of this need to form a coalition and have a strategy that will effectively be able to stop it happening or certainly to stop the worst exceptions. Now that’s why at the moment I make speeches and I’ve done it on the TV and radio as well, and actually say: at the moment in my view the opposition in Britain de facto is becoming the trade union movement, representing nearly 7 million people across public and private sector. We’re the ones arguing for alternative economics, we’re the ones arguing for an alternative welfare state and we’re the ones who are arguing that communities should get better services and not worse ones. It’s the trade union movement. And the trade union movement, not on its own, but working with a variety of campaigning organisations has the ability to get a message across, to popularise it, and to unite people in communities in local campaigns defending libraries and defending schools, and national campaigns defending welfare and defending our pensions. So the key is: how do we build that? Not just in York but throughout the UK.
And in that sense it seems to me that in the last year we’ve got off to a good start. TUC march for the alternative – absolutely fantastic – seeing over a half a million people right across the spectrum march together to say “no” was absolutely inspiring. It was followed on June 30th by over half a million public sector workers in PCS the NUT, UCU and the ATL who went on strike to defend their pensions when many people in the TUC told us it was premature, we should be talking not striking and we shouldn’t be doing it. We said it’s not premature, it’s important that we do this now to try and give people some hope, that there are those who are prepared to stand up to what’s going on. That lead directly to November the 30th, which was one of the greatest days I think in the last few decades of trade unionists standing and making common cause with campaigning groups and pensioners and students. When November the 30th happened, it gave us a glimpse of how we could build enough pressure to force the government to think again. But the government being the government decided that indeed it wasn’t going to turn over and they had a choice: they either could make some concessions, and try and see if they could negotiate their way through it, or they could up the anti, threaten everybody and try and bluster and be belligerent and get away. And they chose the latter. So every trade union leader, including me, was called in by the government and said you’ve got 48 hours, you’re now going to sign up to all the things you’ve opposed: working longer, paying more and getting less, and if you don’t we’ll take it off the table and you’ll get something worse. Now I think that was one of the decisive moments in this pension struggle, because we all had to decide what to do. I’m absolutely proud of my own union, the PCS, was the first in the country to say: “absolutely no chance. How can you ask us to sign up to things that our members went on strike for against three weeks ago.” We said we’re not going to be bullied, we believe we should campaign and fight on. 16 other unions reached the same conclusion over Christmas. And I think it is to the credit to those unions that they are still trying to fight on in much more difficult circumstances than when in November 30th we had more unions representing virtually the whole of the public sector. But it’s because we were faced with the choice: you either know it’s unfair but you accept it, or you know it’s unfair and you decide to continue to fight on. And that’s why we’ve decided to fight on.
About the cancelled national strike which was set for Wednesday 28th March
Now I’ll finish on this point: that in the last few weeks, that attempt to fight back with a coordinated national strike on Wednesday received a bit of a set back. It’s the first time in that process that the unions who were cooperating very closely took different views about the best way to take industrial action to force the government back. But that is a temporary set back, it doesn’t mean the campaign is over, it means that this Wednesday teachers and lecturers will be on strike in London, but that we are still talking to and meeting the other unions with the hope that before the end of April there will be a further national coordinated strike that won’t just happen across all of those unions, but will also be part of an ongoing, rolling program of action around different unions in different parts of the country. So this battle is not off, this battle has been slightly delayed while people try and get their tactics sorted out and agreed. I hope we can do that, cos’ I think if we can have a strike by the end of April that still unites hundreds of thousands of people then it will really tell all sorts of people – I think – that we are determined to fight on against this government and we can bring in to play all the other grievances that are going to become more and more acute as the weeks and months go on.
The task ahead of us
So that leaves me with this though: we’ve got to support the strike in London on Wednesday; we’ve got to do everything we can in our unions to ensure we can all take action at the same time before the end of April. We need an ongoing program of industrial action designed to put real pressure on, uniting both the public sector and the private sector wherever we can, and we’ve got to reach out to the pensioners groups, UK Uncut, to the resistance groups that are building up the length and breadth of the country, to say: “if we work together and plan it properly, we can have a major effect.” And that means local campaigns, it means coming together and supporting everyone when they’ve got their own struggle on to show that there’s solidarity. It means supporting national industrial action, but it also means arguing boldly for an alternative, to put on the pressure on those who want to just accept our lot. That’s a big ask, that is something that we haven’t seen in this country for a long time, but my own view of this thing is quit simple. Yes it may be a big ask, but if we don’t do it, if we don’t rise to the challenge, if we find reasons to look the other way, we will regret this period for the rest of our lives – our kids will suffer, our parents will suffer, our communities will suffer in a way that only a few years ago seemed unimaginable. That task may be big, but it’s one I think we will always be proud to have taken part in and therefore I hope we can support the unions, support the local campaigns and we say to this government: “you may want to look after your rich friends, we want to look after the majority of people in this country and we’re going to fight you all the way.”