This article titled “Public sector unions to ballot over pensions and job cuts as talks stall” was written by Polly Curtis, Whitehall correspondent, for The Guardian on Wednesday 18th May 2011 19.42 Europe/London
Civil servants have voted to ballot on strike action in protest against job cuts and changes to their pensions, paving the way for a 750,000-strong walkout from schools, universities, courts and Whitehall on 30 June.
The decision at the PCS civil service union’s annual conference in Brighton on Wednesday comes as talks set up to avoid strikes spreading across the public sector are threatening to grind to a halt. Ministers and unions have failed to agree on even the basic starting point for negotiations.
Sources close to the discussions – between public-sector unions, the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, and the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude – said they still disagreed on the starting principles of the talks after the government announced that an increase in contributions and a change in the way pensions are measured was introduced as a fait accompli. If the talks fail, strikes will hit the public sector in the autumn, with co-ordinated action potentially bringing large parts of the country to a standstill.
On Wednesday the PCS union, representing 250,000 civil servants, voted to ballot for strike action. It means that a breakaway group of unions representing up to 750,000 public servants are now balloting for strike action to move towards a strike on 30 June affecting schools, courts, ports and job centres if the talks have not succeeded.
The National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers launched ballots this week. The University and College Union already has a mandate for rolling strike action.
Whitehall civil servants in the FDA union are also voting on Thursday, further raising the stakes for government. Jonathan Baume, the general secretary of FDA, will tell his conference that the negotiations with ministers are “serious and united”. But he will warn: “The government can impose change. But ministers also know that they will pay a heavy price if they do. Those affected would include everyone from the Jobcentre Plus worker in Rotherham to a high-court judge in the Strand.
“There would inevitably be widespread industrial action, and damage to morale and motivation for millions of key public sector workers, with a potentially significant electoral price to pay in 2015.”
Leaked details suggest the negotiators are struggling to agree the basics. Unions are opposing plans to increase pension contributions by an average of three percentage points from next year – reducing workers’ monthly take-home pay. Protecting the lowest paid will mean that the higher paid will have to pay more than the average increase, presenting a potential rift in the talks.
Unions are particularly incensed that the Treasury has set a target of reducing public sector payments by £2.8bn, which they say amounts to an extra tax.
Some unions flatly oppose the proposed method of calculating the new career average scheme, set out in the most recent meeting last week, which would replace the more generous final salary schemes some public sector workers receive.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said: “Frankly, I think the talks are a charade. When the government insists on increasing contributions without negotiation we can’t see scope for any change. The government’s starting position is drastic and severe. We are all agreed we should carry on talking, but their proposals are truly shocking.”
The government will make a formal offer on pensions in June. A source said: “Both sides are doing what they can to head off industrial action. Government can’t concede on getting the schemes on to a sustainable basis. We don’t want to be in the position in five to 10 years’ time, like Ireland, where you have to cut existing pensions. Contributions have got to rise, we’ve been sure of that from the beginning.”
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