Making their minds up? Unions ballot for pension strikes

For the third time in two years, the major unions have agreed to ballot for a general strike over public sector pensions.

Submitted by Freedom on February 20, 2006

The news follows the splitting of the public sector pensions agenda into ‘national’ and ‘local’, with national-level workers getting a guarantee of immunity from pension changes for existing workers last years.

Local government workers were told they would have to negotiate their own terms separately, leading to the secondary confrontation.

The Local Government Association have announced proposals to cut pension rights, and have refused to agree protection for many existing scheme members.

Although the terms being offered are broadly similar to those accepted for national-level government workers, unions have attacked measure which split the agreements further and attack the weakest sectors of the workforce.

In particular, part time and support staff, such as teaching assistants, would lose pension rights while full-time staff have theirs retained, leading to accusations that the government are seeking to ‘divide and conquer’.

The call to arms comes after fruitless talks on the issue between unions and local governments.

Unison, Amicus, TGWU, GMB, Ucatt, CYWU, Napo, NUT and the FBU agreed the strategy and have begun proceedings to ballot 1.5m members for action. Unison are leading the call for the strike as the largest group in the sector, pledging to ballot 1m of its members unless progress is made in talks.

General secretary, Dave Prentis, said: "This dispute is the biggest issue Unison has faced for decades. It affects the rights of one million of our members who have paid 6% of their salaries into their pension scheme for decades to save for their retirement and are now being told that the deal is off.

"The local government employers, the LGA and the Government should be in no doubt of how serious we are. All we are asking is for members of the local government pension scheme to be treated fairly.”

Unison’s executive were heavily criticised last year both internally and by members of other unions for unilaterally withdrawing from the strike process during the election period, to allow New Labour a clear run.

Julian, a member of Unison who works in local government, has been following the fight over pensions. He, like many shop-floor members, has been frustrated by the union’s attitude over the last year. He said: “We’re just wasting time negotiating, we should go straight for industrial action. At the period of the election it was crass stupidity to take guarantees from Prescott when it was the perfect time to make them take notice. The only language Prescott understands is people being away from work.

“The constructive thing that will come out of it is that more people will become organised, as action is a great recruiter. However I have a feeling we will be fobbed off again as we have so many time before, with negotiators accepting poor terms and then just recommending we take them.”

The proposals will remove the ‘85-year’ rule from 1st October. The rule allows members to retire at 60, if their age and years of service total 85 or more, on a full pension. In effect, this means that in future all scheme members will have a retirement age of 65.

- In other pensions news, the Confederation of Business Interests (CBI), the main lobbying body for business in parliament, has announced a new campaign to allow small businesses to opt out of the government’s proposed national savings plan.

The scheme, which is designed to supplement the existing state pension, originally proposed all companies and staff be enrolled automatically.

Rob Ray