June 22, 2011 / 8:31 AM / in 8 years

Union warns of UK's biggest strikes over pensions

MANCHESTER (Reuters) - Britain could face the biggest wave of industrial action in a generation if agreement cannot be reached on public sector pension reform, the leader of the biggest public sector union warned on Tuesday.

Unison delegates vote in favour of supporting a campaign to keep Sure Start, during their conference in Manchester, northern England June 21, 2011. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

Unison, which represents 1.4 million of Britain’s 6.2 million public sector workers, has amassed a 30-million-pound war chest for what its head Dave Prentis said could be months of industrial action.

An overhaul of public sector pensions is part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s package of austerity measures adopted after it took power in May last year to tackle a budget deficit of about 10 percent of GDP.

Ministers say pension reform is vital as the system is no longer affordable with people living longer, as well as being unfair on the taxpayer and those in the private sector.

Unions argue it would mean people would work longer and pay more for worse pensions.

Prentis told Reuters it seemed inevitable the issue would be the catalyst for the biggest wave of coordinated industrial action Britain had witnessed.

“It’s no threat that we’re going to create action bigger than the general strike,” he said, in reference to the nine days of industrial action in 1926, held in support of coal miners, which involved more than 1.5 million workers.

“The numbers involved will be bigger than the general strike,” he said in an interview at Unison’s conference in Manchester.

So far, Britain has avoided the large-scale strikes and protests seen in other European countries including Greece, France, Portugal, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Serbia over austerity plans and cuts to pensions.

In Spain, the government passed pension reforms in January with the backing of unions, but there seems little chance of that happening in Britain.

The proposed reforms would see final salary schemes replaced by pensions based on whole-career earnings, employees contributing more and a rise in the retirement age.

Talks between ministers and union chiefs are due next Monday, the last such scheduled discussions, but Prime Minister David Cameron has said: “There was no question of climbing down.”

Prentis said he saw little chance of a resolution. “There’s a chasm between us and it’s very difficult how the bridge can be built to enable us to reach a compromise,” he said.

Britain’s largest civil service union and two teaching unions will also stage a strike over the issue on June 30, involving some 750,000 workers in what will be the largest industrial action for decades.

With some 330,000 public sector workers expected to lose their jobs, weak economic growth, higher taxes, inflation running at 4.5 percent — double the central bank’s target — Prentis said workers would not back down on pensions.

“We’ll take the action for as long as it takes,” he said.

Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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