As the politicians and the press gang up on the attack, who will defend our public service pensions? We will! says UNISON Scotland NEC member JANE CAROLAN.
Jane Carolan is one of Scotland's members on the union's National Executive and has the key role of chairing the UNISON's UK Policy Committee
Over the past few years, there has been nothing that has agitated UNISON members more that the fight to protect their pensions, a fight that has seen members prepared to take to the streets in strike action.
Just as negotiations on the Scottish Local Government pensions draw to a close, and after NHS colleagues have settled on their scheme, the threat to a decent standard of living in old age is again under threat.
It started when “the pensions crisis” in the public sector was at it’s height in 2006 and it has never let up since then, but since the start of the current financial crisis in September of this year, the media critics of public sector pensions have been having a field day, demanding that “the pensions apartheid “ is ended.
Headlines on a daily basis refer to “Pensions Haves and Have-Nots” or are issuing “Warnings over Public Sector Pensions”. We in the trade union movement have never known the Daily Express or Daily Mail to be our friends but the vitriol heaped on on public sector workers has rarely reached such heights and is repeated on a regular daily basis.
Millions of readers are drip fed continually that our pensions are “cushy” , “gold plated” and “A luxury that the country can’t afford”.
Have they ever quoted the figure that the average local government pensioner receives? Just for the record, that’s £3800 per year or £74 per week. What is usually quoted is the figure for a high flying, highly paid civil servant, and while we would all like that level of pension, for our members such a pension is a dream.
Unfortunately, the media loves a stereotype and the gold plated pensioner is now accepted. This isn’t restricted to the tabloid press. Recently the Independent has railed about the fact that there is “no class divide any more, just the difference between the fat cat, featherbedded public sector pensioners and the rest”.
Politicians take up cause
Where the media in this country lead, there are always politicians willing to follow. First out of the stalls was Eric Pickles, the current Tory Shadow Secretary of State for communities and Local Government. Eric has fallen for the hype and believes the myths and is quite clear that the time has come for “reform” in his words, destruction of public sector pensions to the rest of us.
Tory intentions were made clear by the intervention of their leader, David Cameron. Cameron has been very, very clear about his plans for the future. Cameron wants an end to pensions “apartheid”.
Even his choice of language here is offensive. But his intentions could not be clearer. Cameron goes for the jugular vowing to end the final salary schemes that we currently have, replacing them with stock market linked plans. The results of the plan will be simple - pension poverty for millions of public sector workers.
He’s been backed by the Liberal Democrats, who also see our pensions as “unsustainable and unaffordable”
Who will defend us?
As UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis has pointed out, if any political party wants to improve pensions they should start by urging the private sector in this country to face up to their responsibilities by setting up decent pensions schemes.
Any solution should be based on levelling up, not by cutting the public sector pensions that we are all going to rely on. Highly profitable private sector companies are pulling out of the provision of pension schemes but their actions don’t make the headlines in the same way.
We have been prepared to take strike action on our pensions in the past. We need to scrutinise the plans of those who would seek to govern us, and be aware of they in which their programmes are likely to affect us.
At the end of the day, defending our pensions will come down to us.
Article first published in Scotland in UNISON Magazine December 2008
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