By Stephen MacAvoy
Today (30 June), hundreds of thousands of teachers, lecturers, government office workers, job centre staff, air traffic controllers and many other public sector workers are striking against the Tory government’s attacks on their living standards with cuts to pay and pensions.
This is the biggest such strike action since the Tory-led government came to power, and deserves full solidarity from all who wish to stop the Tories’ attempts to transfer costs of the financial crisis onto the majority of the population.
The three education and civil service unions who have voted to strike today are the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the University and College Union (UCU) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). In a sign of the scale of attacks on living standards or working people being carried out by this government, the ATL is holding its first ever national strike in its 127 year history. You can find out details of picket lines and solidarity actions here, here and here.
At the heart of the dispute is the government’s attempts to substantially weaken the pension provision of public sector workers. Pensions are deferred wages, with contributions taken from workers’ salaries throughout their lives to provide an income in retirement. The government is seeking to weaken pension payouts in retirement in a number of ways. It wants to increase the amount that workers pay each month, extending the age at which people can retire to 66 up from 60 in many cases and reduce the amount that people receive by basing this on average life-time salary rather than final salary.
As one PCS branch secretary told the Guardian: “Take the junior manager who joined 22 years ago. She is expected to pay £60 extra a month and work seven years longer before she can retire, and yet her pension will be worth £5,200 less each year when she does retire aged 68. How is that justified?”
Alongside these attacks, which the Treasury hopes will reduce pension payouts by £2 billion pounds a year, millions of public sector workers are facing a two-year pay freeze and hundreds of thousands are expected to lose their jobs. This forms part of a wider attack, with government figures out this week showing that living standards continue to fall as inflation bites and wages stagnate. Cuts to public services will undermine quality of life further.
The government and the Tory media are seeking to discredit the strike with claims that pensions are “gold plated”. Yet the average public sector workers pension is just £5000 per year – less than £100 per week! For women it is less, they having been more likely to be in low-paid work and taken time out of their careers to bring up children. Unison has pointed out that for a woman in local government the average is £2,600!
Claims that public sector pensions are unaffordable are contradicted by the government’s own report. The Hutton Report, which proposed the changes, shows that the cost of public sector pensions has already peaked and are falling. As the graph (below) from the Hutton Report shows, public sector pensions currently cost around 2% of annual GDP and are projected to be about 1.4 percent of GDP by 2060.
Polls show public opposition to the pension reforms, with a YouGov poll this week finding that 47 per cent said they were against the public sector pension reforms and only 37 per cent were in favour. Hundred of thousands of people are on strike today and already UNISON and other unions are warning that millions could join these actions in the autumn.
The fight over pensions is integral to the struggle in defence of living standards and should be fully supported.