UK unions plan 'Day of Action'
The UK's Trades Union Council TUC this evening announced a day of action on November 30, pledging the biggest union mobilisation in a generation after a simmering row over public sector pensions boiled over into strike plans.
Up to three million workers, ranging from firefighters and school dinner ladies, to social workers and driving test examiners, are set to take part in the action, including stoppages, meetings, rallies and joint events with community groups.
The walk out, a day after the Chancellor makes his autumn statement on the economy, will herald months of industrial unrest in a major challenge to the Government.
Ministers accused unions of "rushing" into action while negotiations were continuing, and business leaders urged the Government to "stick to its guns" in the face of the threatened disruption to public services.
One union leader said the action would not be just one day, but would run "through the winter, into next year and following the legislative programme right into the summer".
More than 20 unions are set to be involved in the action, including those representing council workers, NHS staff, teachers, civil servants, firefighters and nurses in secure hospitals.
Unions made a series of announcements about strike ballots during a highly-charged debate at the TUC Congress in London when anger at the Government's plans to increase pension contributions by over 3% spilled over.
Unison, Unite, the GMB and the Fire Brigades Union all gave notice of ballots, which will be held in the coming weeks even though talks with the Government are set to continue.
The ballot by Unison of its 1.1 million members is understood to be the single biggest ballot for strikes yet held by a trade union in this country.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said 9,000 separate employers' groups will be involved in the action, describing the ballot as "unprecedented" in scale.
He was given a standing ovation by TUC delegates after saying unions were involved in the "fight of our lives".
Mr Prentis accused the Government of an "unprecedented" attack on workers with its "audacious and devious" pension reforms.
Talks have been held for several months, but Mr Prentis said: "We've been patient, we've cooperated, but there comes a time when we say enough is enough because, if we don't, they'll be back for more.
"A ballot unprecedented in scale will cover over a million workers in health, local government, school, further education, higher education, police, the voluntary sector and the environment and private sector.
"It's a decision we don't take lightly and the stakes are high, higher than ever before, but now is the time to make our stand. It will be hard, we'll be vilified, attacked, set against each other, but we must stay strong and united."
The Fire Brigades Union announced the first step towards balloting its 43,000 members, raising the threat of industrial action with no Green Goddess military cover.
Firefighters last took national strike action in 2003, when Green Goddesses were used as emergency cover, but the ageing military vehicles have since been taken out of service.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, answering questions after a speech in London, said: "It is very regrettable that they are rushing to announce days of strikes when the discussions are still ongoing.
"It would be lovely to wave a magic wand and say we have discovered pots of gold, and the ageing population is not ageing, and, hallelujah, pension funds are entirely sustainable."
Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman described the calls for strike ballots as "disappointing", and agreed industrial action would be irresponsible at a time of economic difficulty.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said he had never witnessed so much anger and determination among so many unions and warned of a "whole series of strikes", continuing into the new year.
"Public sector workers, many of them lowly paid, are being relentlessly and unfairly targeted by the Government. With their retirement incomes under threat, they have been pushed into a corner and are being forced to take this action.
"Unite has attended every negotiating session with Government ministers since February, but they have been dogged by ministerial bad faith and leaks to the media while negotiations on the individual schemes were continuing.
"Public sector pensions are not 'gold plated'. Half of public sector pensioners get less than £5,600 a year. In local government, the average pension is £4,000 a year - for women it is less. Half of women who have worked in the NHS receive £3,500 a year or less."
Teachers, lecturers and civil servants staged a 24-hour walkout in June and they will be involved in the further action later in the year.
The FBU said unions were being left with "little alternative" but to take industrial action, adding that firefighters faced contributions increasing by between 3.2% and 6%, a move which will cost them between £2,000 and £7,500 by 2014.
Fire crews in the main pension scheme face the highest payments in the public sector, up from 11% to 14.2% for firefighters and 17% for fire officers who have taken promotion, said the union.
The FBU described the increases as a tax on fire crews as part of a "smash-and-grab raid" on their pensions to help pay off the budget deficit.
General secretary Matt Wrack said: "These plans are a crude smash-and-grab raid on firefighter pension rights to help pay for the budget deficit. It is nothing to do with long-term sustainability or affordability.
"The huge rise in contributions will cost our emergency fire crews between £2,000 and £7,500 by 2014. It's daylight robbery to demand these sums.
"We're facing an exodus from the main scheme with as many as one in four firefighters saying they will leave it. That will cost the taxpayer an extra £210 million, no savings at all, and undermine the financial base of the scheme.
"Nearly half of all fire crews say they will consider leaving the fire service if these changes are forced through."
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, who has led the union side in the talks with Government ministers, said: "I remain fully committed to exhausting every possible negotiating opportunity to resolve this issue without the need for further, widespread industrial action, and we will be meeting ministers again next week, engaging in good faith in an effort to find a way forward.
"Ministers have to come to the table with new ideas, and in a new spirit, to give those talks a chance to succeed, but if those talks cannot make a breakthrough, unions are right and fully justified to plan for action."
The TUC conference unanimously voted to give full support to industrial action and expressed concern at the "unsatisfactory response" of the Labour leadership. Ed Miliband was heckled yesterday when he spoke out against strikes in the pensions dispute.
Brian Strutton, national officer of the GMB, said: "We are not talking about a day - we are talking about something that is long and hard and dirty, running through the winter, into next year and following the legislative programme right into the summer."
Dr Neil Bentley, deputy director-general of the CBI, said: "Reforming pensions is never easy, but the Government has already said it will protect lower earners from the full increase in contributions, and public sector workers will still have among the best pensions in the UK.
"Strikes cause major disruption for families and businesses, and mass strike action would mean thousands of parents forced to take a day off work to look after their children. We urge union leaders to get round the table with the Government and negotiate on the details."
Mr Barber said the Government should now table new proposals as a matter of urgency.