Tens of thousands of civil servants are striking on Thursday in a dispute over the government’s public sector pensions reforms.
Jobcentres and tax and benefits offices are likely to be affected by the 24-hour national strike, with some jobcentres possibly closing or forced to run a reduced service, while staff dealing with telephone inquiries at Revenue and Customs and benefits offices may not turn up to work.
NHS staff, including community nurses, health visitors and paramedics, are also taking industrial action. Ports and airports will be affected, but this is not expected to lead to bigger queues at passport control.
College lecturers are involved, while thousands of off-duty police officers will march through London to protest about 20 per cent government spending cuts and proposed changes to pay, pensions and conditions of service.
The industrial action will not be on the scale it was in November 2011, when 30 unions took part in a national strike. On that occasion, unions said two million strikers were involved. This time, the PCS expects 400,000 people to join the strike action.
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said “rigorous contingency planning” was in place to minimise disruption.
The changes to public sector pensions were included in Wednesday’s Queen’s speech. They involve plans to move from final salary pensions to career average schemes, and will mean that public sector staff will have to work for longer before they are entitled to a full pension.
The government is taking action as it attempts to cut public spending as part of an £81bn austerity programme. After a year of negotiations with the trade unions, the government made what it described as its final offer on public sector pensions in March.
It says that despite the reforms, which will save money, public sector pensions will remain generous, with most low and middle-income employees receiving as much as they would have done under the current system.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents civil servants, is also angry that public sector staff are already making bigger pension contributions, while changes are made to the way pensions are protected against inflation, which will lower their value.
As well as the pensions reforms, public sector workers will only receive 1 per cent salary rises following a two-year pay freeze.
PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Ministers have consistently refused to negotiate with us over the key issues of forcing public servants to pay more and work longer for less in retirement, and that is why hundreds of thousands of them will be on strike on 10 May.”
PCS says the average member working in the civil service retires on a pension of just above £4,000 a year.
Other unions involved in the strike are Unite, the University and College Union, the Northern Ireland public sector union Nipsa, and RMT members in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
Unite represents NHS community nurses, health visitors and paramedics. While any action they take may cause inconvenience, the union says it will not affect patient care.
Gail Cartmail, Unite’s assistant general secretary, said: “Our members believe that the government is attacking their pensions as a means of helping reduce the budget deficit which has been caused by a greedy City elite that has brought the economy to its knees. This is blatantly unfair.”
Mr Maude said: “It is very disappointing that a handful of unions insist on carrying on with futile strike action which will benefit no one. We would urge these union leaders to reconsider their position. Pension talks will not be reopened and nothing further will be achieved through strike action.
“Our reforms ensure that public sector pensions will remain among the very best available and that they can be sustained for the future.”
The biggest public sector union, Unison, has accepted the government’s pensions offer to the civil servants it represents. GMB members in the NHS are being balloted at the moment.
The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, says proposals drawn up by Tom Winsor will “change the face of British policing and will lead to the destruction of the greatest police service in the world”.
In a report to ministers, Mr Winsor has recommended changes to bonuses and overtime, with officers in middle and back-office roles losing up to £3,000 a year in allowances.