Firefighters Threaten Stike Over Pensions
The government is facing the threat of renewed industrial action over its controversial pension reforms after unions representing hundreds of thousands of NHS workers, civil servants, firefighters and teachers raised the prospect of widespread strikes.
Leaders of more than 700,000 public sector workers made it clear they were not prepared to agree to planned higher contributions, lower pensions and longer retirement ages.
Up to two million public sector workers staged a one-day strike last November in protest at the pension changes and, although some progress has been made, the dispute remains unresolved, with warnings of more action on March 28.
The executive of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which was not involved in last year's action, today recommended a "rapid move" to prepare for a strike ballot among its 45,000 members after describing the government's proposals following lengthy talks, as "unacceptable".
The union said in a statement: "We are disappointed that the significant body of evidence presented by the Fire Brigades Union during these discussions appears to have been ignored.
"We believe these proposals to be unacceptable in that they include unaffordable and unfair contribution rates, a totally unrealistic retirement age for firefighters, and an unsustainable scheme for the fire service."
The FBU said that over the next three years full-time firefighters will pay an extra £2,000, watch managers £2,700, station managers £4,000, and fire service group managers up to £7,200.
General secretary Matt Wrack said: "These are unfair and unaffordable contribution hikes. We're facing five years of a pay freeze and a pay squeeze at a time of serious inflation.
"There is a real danger these huge hikes will trigger an exodus from the scheme. That means a drop in the money coming and less to pay for pensions going out.
"The entire scheme could rapidly become unstable, leaving the taxpayer to fill the gap. Instead of saving, the taxpayer will be paying more money.
"A pension age of 60 for firefighters is unrealistic and that is obvious to all of us. Everyone in the fire service is saying that 60-year-olds can't work as frontline fire crews.
"We never rush into a ballot for national strike action and have constructively engaged in all talks. We need government to start addressing the evidence we have presented them which supports all we are saying."
Unite said it planned to ballot its 100,000 members in the NHS with a recommendation that they reject the proposals, complaining there had been no substantive changes from what was on the table last year.
The executive of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) said it would propose to members that further action was necessary, while leaders of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) decided to ballot 250,000 civil servants on continuing its campaign of opposition, warning of possible co-ordinated strikes on March 28.
The government has been embroiled in the dispute for more than a year after announcing an average increase of 3.2% in the amount workers pay towards their pensions with the aim of saving £2.8 billion by 2014/15.
Ministers expressed optimism before Christmas that agreements could be reached in four schemes covering local government workers, NHS staff, civil servants and teachers, but the dispute looks set to flare up again before Easter.
Unite said if there was no significant movement by the time of the government's "self-imposed" deadline of February 20, it would press ahead with a ballot of 100,000 NHS workers.
General secretary Len McCluskey said: "There have been no substantive changes from what was on the table before Christmas.
"Our hard-working members will still be expected to pay more, work longer and get less when they retire.
"Our members are deeply unhappy at the government's stance and we will be holding a consultative ballot to reaffirm our members' position - the prospect of further strike action will be very real, unless ministers move on their hardline position.
"Unite calls, yet again, for ministers to enter into real, genuine and meaningful negotiations on the future of NHS pensions before the deadline of February 20 for talks to end.
"The government's attacks on public sector pensions are politically driven, as part of the strategy to privatise the NHS, cut public services, break up the national pay agreements, and disrupt legitimate trade union activities and organisation.
"Unite believes it is important to continue a strong campaign to maintain a fair and equitable system of public sector pensions."
Christine Blower, general secretary of the 300,000-strong NUT teaching union, said: "The NUT is continuing its campaign to save teachers' pensions.
"As a recent survey of NUT members showed, teachers do not accept the Government's position that teachers will have to pay more, work longer and get less.
"The executive of the NUT will be proposing to its members that further strike action is necessary.
"Prior to any calling of strike action we will be consulting our members on both further action and an endorsement of the ongoing campaign."
The PCS executive decided to ballot the union's members in the next few weeks over its continuing campaign, adding that the Government's proposed changes to pensions were being driven by a desire to privatise more public sector jobs.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said: "We refuse to accept that civil servants, nurses, teachers and council workers should be bullied into paying more and working longer for less, just to pay off debts racked up by greedy bankers who are still pocketing their bonuses.
"We will now consult members on a new programme of action and will be talking to other unions about the next wave of our campaign."
Communities and Local Government Minister Bob Neill said there had been constructive discussions with unions on a new scheme for firefighters, which will include average member contributions of 13.2% from April 2015.
The FBU executive said it will meet again within the next few weeks to consider development.
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "Following constructive engagement with all four firefighter unions, we have today published a Heads of Agreement that is a fair, affordable and generous reform package that will give firefighters long-term certainty over their future retirement.
"They build on Lord Hutton's proposals and strike a balanced deal between a good public service pension scheme and greater control over the costs for taxpayers.
"It includes generous protections for anyone within 14 years of their normal pension age and a final salary link for accrued benefits, as well as significant flexibilities on future retirement arrangements.
"We hope that when rank and file union members have had the opportunity to give this agreement their full consideration, they see it for the generous offer it is."
A Department of Health spokeswoman described the Unite decision as "disappointing".
She said: "The proposals agreed with health trades unions last year are a fair deal for staff and taxpayers and make public service pensions affordable and sustainable.
"This means the nurses and doctors who dedicate their life to treating us will continue to receive pensions that are amongst the best available.
"Next year, almost half of NHS staff will pay no more into their pensions. No decisions have been made on individuals' contributions beyond 2012/13, but we are committed to protecting the lower paid."
She added that "failure to reach agreement could lead to a less favourable offer than the one negotiated by the trades unions."