LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday the coalition government would press ahead with plans for public sector pension reform in face of warnings from union chiefs of the biggest wave of strikes in almost a century.
Union bosses have said many of Britain’s 6.2 million public sector workers could take part in coordinated strikes later this year over the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition pension proposals.
The first walkout is due on June 30 when some 750,000 teachers and civil servants are due to take industrial action, but Cameron said “there was no question of climbing down”.
“The unions and indeed the taxpayers need to know we will be very firm and very resolute in our approach as we absolutely have to have a long term pension system that is affordable,” he told BBC radio.
Cameron said the current pension system was no longer affordable because people were living longer.
The proposed reforms, based on a review by a former Labour government minister, would see existing final salary schemes replaced by pensions based on whole-career earnings, employees contributing more, and a rise in the retirement age.
Unions, already unhappy with the government’s austerity measures to address a budget deficit of around 10 percent of GDP, argue it would mean people would work longer and pay more for worse pensions.
Britain has not seen the violent protests that have taken place in other European countries struggling to address big deficits, but weak economic growth, higher taxes, and high inflation along with pay freezes for public sector workers is raising discontent.
Union chiefs have warned of the biggest labour stoppages since the 1926 general strike which involved some 3 million workers, which would put pressure on the government as it presses ahead with its plans to virtually eliminate the deficit by 2015 and avoid a debt crisis similar to Ireland or Greece.
Cameron said negotiation over the details of the pension reforms were ongoing and there had been “very constructive conversations” with the unions.
“No one wants to have a confrontation, no one wants to see strikes, I certainly don’t want to see that happen,” he said, adding he believed the proposed reforms were fair.
“The fact is we are all living longer, thankfully, and so as a result the cost of pension systems is going up. So we have got to be fair to teachers and doctors and nurses but we’ve also got to be fair to the taxpayer.”
Reporting by Michael Holden