September 8, 2011 / 9:36 AM / in 8 years

Unions say millions may strike over pension reform

LONDON (Reuters) - Millions of public sector workers could stage a one-day strike in November if the government did not negotiate over plans to hike pension contributions, a union leader said on Thursday.

Demonstrators march past the Houses of Parliament during a protest over pension reforms in London June 30, 2011. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

Mark Serwotka, secretary-general of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, said his executive had unanimously agreed to call a day of protest on a date to be agreed with other public sector unions.

Serwotka told reporters industrial action would involve “millions” of workers this time instead of the “hundreds of thousands” who went on strike in June.

He said the PCS, which represents 300,000 civil servants, was talking to a number of other public sector unions about following the strike up with some “hard-hitting targeted action designed to maximise pressure” on the employers and government.

Serwotka would not speculate which ones would take part but anticipated that up to 10 unions or more would be involved in the actions. Teachers, health workers and firefighters were likely to be involved, he said, some of whom had already talked publicly about balloting members.

Earlier on Thursday two other civil service unions, Prospect and the FDA, who collectively represent 54,000 of the country’s senior public servants, said they would ballot their members this autumn over pensions.

Serwotka also said many unions wanted the strike to be the opening salvo of targeted sustained industrial action.

PENSION FLASHPOINT

Union membership has dwindled to 6.2 million — around a quarter of the workforce — but the public sector remains a stronghold.

The pensions issue looks set to become a test of strength in coming months, pitting the unions against the Conservative-led government which is pressing ahead with austerity measures.

Some Conservatives want the government to tighten labour laws further, while the unions are keen to show they remain relevant after years of declining influence.

The budget deficit is running at a record 10 percent of gross domestic product, and an overhaul of pensions is part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s package of measures to tackle the problem.

Unions say increasing contributions from next April amounted to levying an unfair tax on their members.

A spokesman for Prospect said unions were not asking the government to entirely drop reforms but to “meaningfully negotiate” on the issue. “We have no confidence that it is happening,” he said.

The warning comes as union leaders from across the public sector resumed talks with government ministers on the issue.

Serwotka said talks with the government so far had has been “an utter shambles.” He said ministers had acted in “bad faith” and had made “no progress whatsoever.”

Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Sitaraman Shankar and Karolina Tagaris

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