19 Jun 2011

Ed Balls warns unions of trap over pension strikes

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has urged trade unions not to fall into the Government’s “trap” of calling mass strikes in opposition to planned public sector pension reforms.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has urged trade unions not to fall into the Government's

Ed Balls claimed ministers were deliberately trying to provoke the unions into industrial action so they could blame them for the failure of the Government’s economic strategy.

Dave Prentis, the general secretary of the Unison public service union, has warned the coalition that it is facing the biggest wave of industrial action since the general strike of 1926.

The unions reacted with fury after Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander set out plans which require most public sector employees to work longer and pay more for less generous entitlements in retirement.

But while Labour has condemned the Government’s negotiating tactics, it has stopped short of backing the unions’ demands.

Writing in the Sunday Mirror, Mr Balls warned it was not in the unions’ interests to engage in mass strikes. He said the country did not want to see a return to the “division and confrontation” of the 1980s.

George Osborne knows the economy has flat-lined over the last six months. Ed Balls

“From David Cameron down, Ministers are saying to the trade unions: ‘Bring it on’. Like in the 1980s, they seem to be spoiling for a fight, goading the unions and trying to provoke strikes,” he wrote.

“George Osborne knows the economy has flat-lined over the last six months. He knows he’s losing the economic argument on the deficit and jobs and needs to change course.

“But instead he’s trying to pick a fight about pensions, provoke strikes and persuade the public to blame the stalling economy on the unions.

“That’s why trade union leaders must avoid George Osborne’s trap. He wants them to think that going on strike is the only option and the best way to win the argument.”

Business Secretary Vince Cable has sought to strike a more conciliatory tone, stressing the Government’s commitment to negotiation. At the same time, however, he said that the current system had to be reformed.

“The Government wants to negotiate over this and our belief is that most trade unionists want to negotiate over this as well,” he said.

“We are talking about how future pensions are to be paid for. Reasonable people, I think, can agree and negotiate on how we deal with that problem.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the normally moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers, whose members voted to join a mass one-day strike on June 30, said ministers should withdraw their “diktat” pensions.

“The Government has to decide whether it is in negotiation or it is simply going to lay down the law,” she said. “That is a gun to our heads and we will not be walked over in that way.”