The leader of the Labour party has warned unions against strikes over pension reform while talks continue with ministers.
Ed Miliband told TUC members meeting in London the government and unions needed to engage in “meaningful negotiations” if industrial action over Lord Hutton’s proposed changes to public sector pensions were to be avoided.
Criticising the decision of some unions to go on strike in June while talks were continuing, he said: “While negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen,” he said. Mr Miliband was heckled as he said he still believed that to be right and called for “meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over the autumn”.
Unison, Unite, GMB and other unions are currently in talks with Treasury ministers over how the cost of pensions for council staff, health workers, civil servants and other public servants can be cost.
The government’s timetable has called for headline proposals for changes to pension schemes, based on Lord Hutton’s recommendations for reform, should be completed by the end of October but unions have already discussed the possibility of combined strike action if the talks fail to find agreement.
Particular bones of contention for the unions is a change in the inflation measure used to calculate pensions, a government decision now subject to judicial review, and a plan to increase employee pension contributions by an average of 3.2% per scheme member.
Described as a tax by unions, Mr Miliband also criticised the government’s approach to pension reform. “The Tories have set about reform in completely the wrong way,” he said. “Even before John Hutton’s report was complete, they announced a 3% surcharge on millions of your members.”
The decision was “a typically bad move by a bad government trying to pick a fight” and had left millions of public sector workers feeling angry, he said, but that did not excuse strike action while conversations were still taking place.
He also called on the Tories to show they were “serious about finding a way forward”.
He said: “The Tories claim to be the party of reform, but their actions risk derailing the vital reform of public sector pensions because many people may now opt out of the system. That won’t save money. It will end up costing the taxpayer billions of pounds.”
Commenting after Mr Miliband’s speech, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis praised the Labour leaders “measured, serious” tone but said he had expected “full backing to our fight for a decent pensions’ deal”.
Mr Prentis said: “We want to negotiate - I have always said that strike action is a last resort. And Ed is right to say that talks have to be meaningful - sadly the progress of the pensions’ talks has been glacial.”