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Unions to ballot for strike on pensions

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Unions representing millions of public sector workers are set to strike on November 30 in protest at the government’s approach to pension reform.

Unison, Unite and GMB representing local government workers as well as those representing teachers, civil servants and other groups today gave notice they intended to ballot members over changes to public sector pensions.

Even traditionally cautious unions, such as that for civil service managers, the FDA, backed a unanimously supported motion for coordinated industrial action at Wednesday morning’s session of the 2011 Trades Union Congress taking place in London.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said he was giving “full notice to 9,000 employers that we are now balloting for industrial action” involving more than a million workers in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Warning members the industrial action would see unions “vilified and attacked”, Mr Prentis added: “Now is the time to make our stand.”

Unison, Unite, GMB and a number of other unions have been involved in months of talks with ministers in an attempt to find agreement on the government’s plans to increase employee contributions to their pensions from April 2012 and how to implement Lord Hutton’s recommendations for pension reform.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who spoke at the TUC yesterday, warned against taking industrial action before “meaningful negotiations” had taken place with the government, but his words were quickly dismissed by union leaders such as Mr Prentis who said the progess of talks had been “glacial”.

Gail Cartmail, Unite assistant general secretary, today told the congress her union was also giving notice of a ballot over strike action. “We are determined to defend public sector pensions from this despicable race to the bottom,” she said.

She described Unite as “responsible” but said the government’s approach in negotiations had led the union to this point.

In particular, she highlighted their unilateral decision to change the inflation index rate used to calculate pensions, the Treasury’s failure so far to produce any cost-ceilings for negotiators to work with, “impenetrable documentation” from officials and an “unwillingness to provide the openness that we and employers want in these talks”.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the FDA civil service union which has traditionally been more willing to talk and less ready to take industrial action than others, said the union could not agree to the three years of employee contribution increase which the government wishes to implement from April 2012. “Ministers just want to take and give nothing in return,” he told the congress.

The Local Government Association, which is representing council employers in talks with unions, said it would not comment while discussions were still ongoing.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said the government was committed to continued talks with unions to find a way to tackle the increased cost of pensions as people live longer.

“It is very disappointing that there have been calls for industrial action while these talks are ongoing because we hope agreement can be reached,” he said. “We hope the unions will recognise that rational discussion and open dialogue are more appropriate methods of reaching a solution that works to the benefit of all, rather than engaging in industrial action.

“The government is committed to genuine and meaningful dialogue and working with the unions to achieve necessary reforms. Discussions have been taking place for several months and there will be a further meeting next week as part of this process.”

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