The Great Pension Robbery

Wednesday 30th November 2011 will see the largest set of co-ordinated industrial action by trade unions in a generation over the Government’s proposals to change public sector pension schemes on the basis that the public purse can no longer afford them.

In the past pensions have not been burning issues for members of black communities who have been struggling against racism. This has partly been because the number of black workers in the UK black community at pensionable age has been relatively small and for younger workers the need to plan financial security in their old age is not at the forefront of their minds. However a recent report by the Runnymede Trust demonstrated that this is rapidly changing and forecasted an increase in the number of Black people over 65 (in England and Wales) from 230,000 in 2001 to 2.7 million by 2051.

More recently however debates at the TUC Black Workers’ Conference and increased involvement of black workers in the recent industrial action show that this is becoming an important issue. This interest is not just because a larger proportion of the black population are getting older, but also because in the public sector where significant numbers of Black workers have gained employment the public sector pension schemes paid into over the length of their working lives are now under attack.

The current attack on pensions is nothing new. Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s Government, keen to help their friends in the city develop a financial services industry, went on a charm offensive to persuade public sector workers to move their pensions from secure final salary schemes to personal pension plans. What they didn’t say was that a personal pension plan costs lot more because of administration cost and that the value of your final pension would be dictated by how well the stock market was doing at the point of retirement. They also failed to warn those that left pension schemes that the sales patter fed them by banks and insurance agents that they would get a better pension on retirement was lies. Unsurprisingly by the end of the 1990s it was discovered that thousands of public sector employees had been mis-sold personal pension plans. Many firms that were involved in this scam went out of business to avoid having to pay compensation to the victims and it was left to the taxpayer in the form of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme to pick up the tab.

Attacks on private sector defined benefit (final salary or career average) schemes came in the 1990s when employers decided that they would prefer not just to take pension holidays by not paying the employer’s contribution into company pension schemes, but not have schemes at all and force workers, at least those that could afford it, to rely on personal pension plans bought from financial services companies, unless of course you were a top executive. This little trick was accomplished by asking financial actuaries in the city to change the way that they calculated the long term values of pension funds investments. The calculation was changed to calculate the risk of the funds over a much shorter period and based on investment values just after there had been stock market crash.

Not surprisingly the result was that what had been once financially viable pension funds were found to have large pension gaps as the assets in the schemes were drastically downgraded and liabilities increased. This of course provided employers with the excuse to either close pension final salary pension schemes to new employers or close them down completely thus devastating pension provision for ordinary workers in the private sector.

With pension provision in the private sector devastated the current Government has turned its attention to the public sector where workers are accused of having the benefit of gold plated pension schemes. This is despite the fact that roughly half of public service pensioners receive less than £5,600 a year. Recent changes to the public sector pension schemes since the coalition Government came into power mean that those in public services are already paying a 3% increase in their contributions and seeing the value of their pensions drop because index rating of pensions has been moved from the retail price index to the consumer price index, which will mean smaller annual pension rises.

This means that members in public services are already paying more for less, but the Government is not stopping there. Future proposals for changes to the schemes include:

• Increased contributions – by 50% or more

• Raised Retirement Age – to 66 for those over 42, 67 for those between 34 and  42 and to 68 for those under 34

• Replacement of final salary schemes with career average – less money for our • retirement.

These changes are likely to make being in the pension scheme, if you work for public services, prohibitively expensive and result in many current workers opting out of their current pension schemes and future workers not joining the schemes.

Public sector unions are quite rightly vigorously campaigning against this outrageous robbery. Pensions are deferred payment for old age in terms of the workers’ contribution and the employer’s contribution. The fact that the Government believes like their friends in the private sector that they are entitled to renege on schemes that workers rely on for their retirement is outrageous.

For the Black community the context for the current attacks on public sector pensions is one in which many Black people endure pensioner poverty and where the number of older Black people is growing rapidly. Runnymede’s recent report, Ready for Retirement?, shows that people from all Black backgrounds are more likely to experience pensioner poverty than the wider population. Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that half of older Pakistani and Bangladeshi people live in poverty, as do almost a third of Indians and African Caribbeans, in comparison to one in six older people overall. Black people are also more likely to experience poverty before retirement. For example, 65 per cent of Bangladeshi people live in poverty, compared to 20 per cent of white people (DWP figures). There is, therefore, huge risk that many in the growing population of older Black people will have insufficient income to maintain a decent standard of living.

Many young black workers who work in the service industries such as finance, media, IT or the arts and don’t understand the importance of pensions do not have access to a decent occupational pension scheme. Many others who work for agencies, in call centres or doing temporary work are not covered by occupational pension schemes. For women, not having access to an occupational pension scheme to supplement their state pension is disastrous. They already suffer because of career breaks to raise children and make up an overwhelming proportion of those that work part time. Recent research revealed that women lose out both ways as they often fail to pay enough contributions to receive a full state old age pension. As a result 16% of newly retired women have a full basic state pension as against 78% men. Luckily many black workers are relatively young compared to the population as a whole with 32.39 per cent in the 22–44 age group and 15.18 per cent in the 45–64 age group. This means that the spectre of mass pensioner poverty in black communities is some way off. However in 20 – 30 years there will be a tenfold increase in numbers of pensioners in the black communities and if we do not wake up to the realities of old age then our communities will be heading for a disaster. Those that believe that culturally we will be alright because younger relatives will look after us, or that they will go back home where it’s cheaper to live are deluding themselves. If we are to avoid the scenario of black pensioners dying because they haven’t got enough money to keep their houses warm or eat decent meals then action is needed now.

It is not an issue that can be left to others outside our community to campaign on. If we want to rectify the historic disadvantage that is faced by black pensioners, have access to decent occupational pensions and ensure that there is an adequate basic pension provision for our retirement then we have wake up to this issue now. We need to educate communities about pension issues, get involved in the union campaigns and industrial action to defend public sector pensions and fight to secure occupational pensions for all. This is not a choice, we can’t afford not to.

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November 29, 2011 at 7:20 PM Leave a comment

The Anti Rascist festival – Now and Then

A couple of weekends ago over 3,000 people enjoyed the anti racist UpRise festival which was heavily sponsored by trade unions took place on the streets of Dalston in Hackney. The festival emanated from the Rise (formerly RESPECT) festival that was originated by the TUC in 1996/97 and revived by the Mayor of London in 2001. UpRise has been organised for the last two years by a small group of community activists and was a response to the current Mayor deciding that an anti racist festival was not something that was needed. This year’s festival called ‘Community is Home’ was a development of the idea that UpRise is a festival for the community put on by the community and more in keeping with the tradition of the anti-racist festival which started with the historic Rock Against Racism festival in 1978 an event I will never forget.

The date was 30th April 1978 the place was Victoria Park Hackney, the event a free all music festival and amazingly by the early afternoon what threatened to be a washout turned into a warm sunny afternoon. The crowd had come from all over the UK with over 40 coaches coming from Glasgow a trainload of people from Manchester and at least 15 coaches from Sheffield. I was 19 at the time and had got involved in Rock against Racism through some friends of mine. We formed a group in Islington and I then got involved with helping to organise the Victoria Park event. I had a great view of the crowd and the stage as I was in put in charge of the press phgotographers.

A music festival was not something unusual but his festival was truly unique as its purpose was to promote anti racism. Organised under the slogan of Black and White Unite and Fight the event was put together by Rock against Racism a grassroots organisation that had emerged two years before in response to Eric Clapton’s declaration at a gig at the Birmingham Odeon that we should send them all back and that Enoch Powell was a prophet who was needed to keep Britain white.

Local Rock against Racism groups had emerged all over the country putting on gigs in pubs and small local venues and a magazine called Temporary Hoardings had been established and the distinctive Rock against Racism star was to be seen on badges of all kinds of young people. Central to the philosophy of the movement was that there is more that unites than divides us. Gigs were organised on the basis of music that reflected the emerging rebel youth cultures of both black and white youth at the time, punk and reggae, with the express intent of attracting mixed audiences.

The Victoria Park festival was organised partly in response to the rising electoral success of the National Front who and more generally to put anti-racism on the map as an integral part of youth culture. It was preceded by a march organised by the Anti Nazi leagues which assembled at Trafalgar Square and made its way to Victoria Park.

When the event kicked off there was a lot of apprehension about whether enough people would come to fill the area we had been given in Victoria Park. There were only about 100 people in the park at the time and although we knew there were 10,000 people on the march it was important that this festival was successful if our aim to put Rock against Racism on the map nationally was to succeed. In the event we should not have worried, by the early evening 80,000 people had gathered in the Park, Rasta’s, skinhead’s Punks, Hippies people from every walk of life, to listen to the music and to affirm the message opposing racism and fascism.

This was a landmark event it established anti racism as part of British youth culture, brought together black and white music in a way that had not happened before a paved the way for a tradition of anti racism and anti fascist events with popular music at their heart.

For me the main lesson is that ordinary people inspired by a just cause can achieve anything and that the need for black and white youth and communities to unite to fight the twin evils of racism and fascism that pervades our communities is need as much now as it was in 1978. I for one am delighted that UpRise is carrying on that tradition.

October 3, 2011 at 2:54 PM Leave a comment

Black History Month – A Trade Union Necessity

Black History Month (BHM) in the UK originated in 1987 from an initiative Akyaaba Addai Sebbo a special adviser at the Greater London Council (GLC).  Addai  organised the first event know to have taken black that years and subsequently drew up a plan to recognise the contributions of African, Asian and Caribbean people to the economic, cultural and political life in London. Over the years other  school, libraries local Councils and other institution began to recognise October as Black History Month in the UK and started to organise BHM events.

From the early 1990’s TUC regions and trade unions started to organise Black History Month events and within ten years they had become an important part of the calendar for black members groups within the  trade union movement.  However, for much of the trade union movement participation in these events is mainly by black workers and all too often the events are seen by the wider movement as a cultural celebration and an affirmation of the black workers groups within unions.

Black History Month is not without its critics who are uncomfortable with the increasing commercialisation of the event epitomised by this year’s Black History month Live at Wembley in London and because it is seen as ghettoising black history into one month of the year.  After much debate the South East Region of the TUC (SERTUC) who used to do an annual black history month event decided  that they would hold events that had relevance to black history throughout the years.  This led to the development of the SERTUC film which is popular both with trade unionists and working people who are not particularly involved in the movement.  The club mainly show’s films that are about history and lives the black working clash communities in the UK.

Whatever the controversy surrounding black history month it still has an important role to play in the trade union movement.  Many initiatives have been developed within the last 30 years in employment practice and by trade unions to address discriminatory attitudes, structures and practices. Understanding black history is an important part of this process and helps to counter the tendency to view black people as victims rather than as conscious agents for social change. The contribution of black workers to the labour movement, although significant, is largely undocumented. Yet black workers have led struggles for equality, for trade union recognition, for equal pay, dignity and respect at work. It is important that trade unions not only commemorate these struggle and the sacrifices of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic workers but make sure that the whole of the movement is educated about them. Only through doing this can we make hope to maintain and develop the solidarity that is necessary for both black and white working people to fight the oppression and exploitation that we face today.

October 3, 2011 at 11:51 AM Leave a comment

Thoughts on a graduation Part 2

Coming to terms with the new ConDem Governments proposals to slash and burn the UK economy and welfare state has occupied my time for many weeks now but the recent demonstrations by students over the proposed increase in university fees and cuts  to education has made me pause for reflection.

I recently attended the graduation of my youngest daughter from Oxford University. My daughter had warned me that I might be bored because the graduation ceremony would be conducted in latin and I must admit that I was dreading the experience, but being the proud parent I was definitely not going to miss the opportunity to celebrate her achievements.

Ironically, I was fascinated by the experience. Firstly, because despite regular pronouncements that we are a multicultural society and that we have overcome blatant discrimination I was the only black parent on the room. Secondly, that the ceremony itself  was not only the conferring of a degree but also an initiation into an elite club of Oxford graduates (this was reflected in the latin ceremony) and lastly because of the description of an Oxford education as equipping students with the tools to learn, analyse and think about how they would use the knowledge they acquired during their life, in the vice-chancellor’s speech   This for me was a brilliant description of the purpose of education.

I have always bemoaned  the discourse on state education over the last decade has  been more about its ability to train students for work and not educated them for life.  My experience at Oxford starkly demonstrated the gross inequalities in our education system for those  (often  through privilege) that experience the advantages of being educated at an elite university like Oxford and the rest.  It reminded me that those that fought for a universal state education system did so in the belief that all our children be given these opportunities.

In the fight to safeguard our educations system and the opportunities for  wider participation in higher education we need to remember the aims of those that took up the original fight for universal education, to make sure that the opportunities afforded the privileged is available to all and in our fight to defend education access remember that education is not just about equipping our children to be cogs in the wheels of business and make profits for those who already have plenty, but to widen their experience and equip them with the tools to make sense of all aspects of our current realities and beautiful world so that they can build a better tomorrow.

November 26, 2010 at 2:20 AM 5 comments

Wise Words

A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.

This is how it starts, and, before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high.

Jimmy Reid 1972

August 19, 2010 at 4:46 PM Leave a comment

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

(Langston Hughes)

I have just read the programme for of the new ConLib government which makes it perfectly clear that despite their pronouncements about a new politics and the big society, they are firmly on the side of the rich and privileged. I have to say this has come as no surprise to me as I am somebody who rejects the notion that just because technology has speeded up communications and people are able to move around at a faster speed, the world has fundamentally changed.

I have also been watching with interest the unfolding of the labour party leadership race and reading the pronouncements of various senior party figures all assuring us that the party needs to make a change and that the Blair versus Brown or Old labour versus new labour debates need to be forgotten and that like a Chameleon the party needs to metamorphosis itself and adopt a new set of values that will make it clear that it stands for social justice.

Unfortunately all the rhetoric from the leading contender is as a friend put it sounds like marketing on an ailing product. It appears that they just don’t understand that the Tories have recaptured their natural centre right ground and glib phrases about the need to move on to next labour from David Milliband or that we need a new way of doing politics from Ed Milliband might be a turn on the chattering classes who love the political gossip in the Guardian, but doesn’t do anything for the thousands of labour party supporters who feel alienated from the party. Who have either left the Party or like me found it impossible to be active in it because we disagree with what the New Labour Government did on virtually every major policy area. Whether it be going to war in Iraq, the semi privatisation – sorry choice – agenda in schools and hospitals, the failure to address the ever increasing housing problem by building affordable council housing for ordinary families or the pandering to big business or the banks.

You may well ask why I didn’t leave the party and that is a valid question. The reason why I haven’t comes back to my earlier belief that the world has not changed. The problem with new labour and the politicians that have emerged from the ruins is that they believe that everybody has the same interests, that as a country if we prosperous everybody gets rich. They have warped the original pluralist values of the labour party which recognised that the interests of the poor are contrary and different from those occupying positions of power and privilege into some kind of weird notion of diversity pluralism a coalition of a load of single interest groups.

If Labour are going to be revived the the current party leadership need to understand that it is time to get back to the notion that labour exists to represent the needs of working people. That in order to deliver social justice they need to deliver economic justice and that this means tackling the vested interests and privileges of big business and the super rich. The old adage – for a few to be rich many have to be poor – has never been truer than in the modern world and the crime of new labour accepting this and not challenging or attempting to change this fundamental political truth dashed the dreams of huge numbers of people who were voting for real change in 1997. For my part I hope that dream was just deferred and that the labour party can rise to the challenge of re-awaken and reinvigorate this dream or fear that it will as a party become and irrelevance spouting platitudes without meaning.

May 20, 2010 at 6:48 PM 1 comment

The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating

The recent General Election has been hailed as a historic political night for Black Britain with the election of a record breaking numbers of black candidates being elected to Parliament. The numbers increased from 14 black MP’s to 26 with 15 Labour and 11 Conservatives being elected to the House of Commons.

Whilst the increase in number is welcome we should be cautious about the idea that increasing black representation in the halls of power will automatically result in better representation in Parliament on the issues that affect the daily lives of black people, or that this will result in more attention being paid by the political elite to the personal and institutional racism that results in the impoverishment of our communities.
Progress cannot be measured in numbers, but also has to be measured by the political principles black MP’s not only espouse but act on. Unfortunately all too often in the past Black MP’s have assured their black constituents that they are committed to fight against racism while voting for legislation that has resulted in the introduction of measures that result in even more oppression of our communities by the state.

The reality of the British political system is that it is based on patronage and the House of Commons is no different. The price demanded for those with the ambition to play a role in government is that they hitch their political allegiance to the shirt tails of a key political figure. Hence those entering parliament face a dilemma. Do they vote with the Government in the hope that by climbing the political ladder they can one day hold ministerial office and make a difference or speak up for those that are exploited and oppressed and risk being cast as a political outsider. Although this is not an easy dilemma to solve it is worth remembering that if you cast aside your ideals to get to the top you cannot stand on them later and the idea radical change can come about though individual influence rather than from collective action of those that are oppressed does not stand historical scrutiny.

So whilst we have had a record number of black MP’s in Parliament we should remember that whilst this is a positive change it may not lead to a positive outcome unless we ensure that on matters of race we organise to pressure these MP’s act on behalf of the best interests of the black communities. As Angela Davis so succinctly put it “when the inclusion of black people into the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all”.

The test for these MP’s will come almost immediately as all the mainstream political parties are arguing that in order for Britain to become lean and competitive, public debt must be cut and that public spending is out of control. This, despite the fact that the deficit is as a result of bailing the banking sector out during the recent financial crisis.

In a statement to this year’s Black Workers’ Conference the TUC Race Relations Committee highlighted their belief that the threatened cuts across public services will have a heavy impact on working communities with a disproportionate impact on already impoverished black communities which rely on high-quality and accessible public services to look after their families. Specialist services provided by the black voluntary sector are already under threat and it is likely that Black Community Groups face extinction as a result of cuts to grant funding.

For black trade unionists and our families, public sector cuts means lost jobs, depleted services, devastation of the black voluntary sector, fewer rights and a new era of hardship.

Black trade unionists and community activists will need to unite and organise to motivate then black community to resist these cuts and defend public services which our communities are so reliant on to alleviate the effects of the economic recession that we are now experiencing.

As for those new MP’s the proof of the pudding will be if they stand up with us to defend public services or instead abandon our interests in favour of seeking patronage from the parliamentary political machine.

May 11, 2010 at 3:33 PM Leave a comment

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