LONDON (Reuters) - The government and unions said talks over public sector pension reforms made progress on Monday but a planned strike by up to 750,000 teachers and civil servants later this week will still go ahead.
Thursday’s strikes, which will close schools and government offices and could lead to disruption at airports and ports, could be just a taste of wider strikes later this year.
Union leaders and ministers said progress was made in Monday’s talks but they had failed to resolve the issue in time to stave off the planned strikes which will involve about one in eight of public sector workers.
“It was disappointing that the meeting proved to be no different to any of the others — it was a farce,” said Mark Serwotka, head of the Public and Commercial Services union which is one of those taking action.
However, Dave Prentis, leader of the largest public sector union Unison, said plans to ballot his 1.4 million members would now be put on hold.
The government is facing a challenge familiar to other European countries — how to support an ageing population at a time when it is trying to cut spending.
The proposed reforms would see pensions based on final salaries replaced with cheaper pensions based on earnings over the course of a whole career. Employees would contribute more to their pension pot and the retirement age would rise.
Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude said the discussions had been constructive and strikes were premature while talks were still ongoing. Two further meetings between unions and the government have been scheduled for July.
“We believe both sides have a responsibility to see the talks through and we would urge public workers not to strike while they are ongoing,” he said in a statement.
Union membership has dwindled in Britain since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government took on miners and print workers in the 1980s and imposed fundamental reforms that changed the face of British industry.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC), union umbrella body, now has more than six million members, but the public sector remains a stronghold for activists.
Public sector workers are already facing a wage freeze and more than 300,000 job losses as the government cuts spending. For some in the unions, the pension reform is the last straw.
Union chiefs have warned the issue could later this year prompt the biggest labour stoppages since the 1926 general strike when more than 3 million workers went on strike for nine days.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber told reporters there still was wide division over key areas of the pension reforms, but they could reach agreement on some elements.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Michael Roddy