18 Jun 2011

Union warns of biggest strike since 1926 over pensions

Planned pension reforms will lead to the biggest wave of industrial action in Britain since 1926, according to one trade union.

Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, made the comments as unions threatened to walk away from talks over coalition plans to require most public sector employees to work longer and pay more for less generous entitlements in retirement.

He told the Guardian: “It will be the biggest since the general strike. It won’t be the miners’ strike. We are going to win.”

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander provoked fury on Friday by warning public sector workers it would be a “colossal mistake” to reject a deal that was the best they could hope for.

Unison members marching with their banners at the March for the Alternative, organised by the Trades Unions Congress in London (Getty)

The reforms include increasing the general retirement age in the public sector from 60 to 66, moving from a final salary system to benefits based on career-average earnings and raising contributions by an average 3.2 per cent.

But Mr Alexander insisted that those on the lowest incomes would not have to pay any more and that low and middle earners would get roughly the same benefits as they do now.

The GMB threatened to pull out of talks altogether, as union chiefs accused him of trying to sabotage negotiations by announcing details of the Government’s position to the media.

Mr Prentis, whose union has more than 1.3 million members, said the country should brace itself for “rolling action over an indefinite period” until workers get their message across.

Read more: Government confirms rise to public sector pension age

He told the newspaper: “I strongly believe that one day of industrial action will not change anyone’s mind in government. We want to move towards a settlement.

“The purpose of industrial action is not industrial action, it is to get an agreement that is acceptable and long-lasting.

“But we are prepared for rolling action over an indefinite period. This coalition has got to open its eyes and see that in just reacting to a Daily Mail view of the public sector they are walking into a trap of their own making.”

‘Paving the way for privatisation’

Friday’s pensions proposals came amid a threatened wave of industrial action starting with up to 750,000 teachers and civil servants going out on strike on June 30.

Mr Prentis said the government cuts were hitting public services hardest and were paving the way for privatisation.

“You can’t just look at what’s happening around pensions as a single issue. All our members provide public services. You look at what this coalition has decided to do to reduce the deficit and it’s decided that most of the deficit reduction programme will be at the expense of our public services,” he said.

“The people that we represent are facing redundancy, a two-year pay freeze, while inflation is 5 per cent and gas prices are going up 20 per cent, and they are desperately worried about privatisation of the services they have committed their working lives to.

“It means that cowboys that we used to have in the 1980s can put in bids that will always undermine the public service bid and they will get the contract not on the quality of work but because they are cheapest. It’s just to soften the way for privatisation.”