Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Furious unions threaten strikes as minister springs pensions surprise” was written by Hélène Mulholland and Polly Curtis, for The Guardian on Saturday 18th June 2011 00.11 Europe/London

Months of talks to negotiate a new pension deal for public servants are on the brink of collapse after unions reacted with fury to the government’s surprise confirmation of the new scheme weeks before talks had concluded.

Union leaders were incensed after Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, appeared to undermine talks by announcing crucial details of the new pension plan for 6 million public servants ahead of a meeting with union representatives this month.

They warned that the appearance of a fait accompli by the government risked tipping more unions towards striking. One union, the National Association of Head Teachers, immediately announced it would move to a ballot and the head of the FDA, which represents the most senior civil servants, described the talks as becoming “doomed to failure”.

Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, said his negotiators had not even seen some of the proposals announced by Alexander. “At such a critical time in complex negotiations this is a deeply inflammatory public intervention with a clumsy mix of announcements apparently designed to pre-empt the talks, coupled with crude threats that even worse terms might be imposed if unions refuse to acquiesce to this assault on their pensions.”

Alexander set out details of the plans confirming that the public sector pension age will rise in tandem with the state pension age to 66 by 2020. Only the armed forces, police and firefighters will be protected.

The generous final salary schemes will end, to be replaced by a career average, and contributions will rise by an average of 3.2 percentage points, with those earning below £15,000 exempted and those below £18,000 capped at 1.5 percentage points. Higher earners including teachers and medics will have to pay up to five percentage points more.

He insisted in interviews and a speech to the IPPR thinktank that the changes included vital sacrifices in higher contributions and later retirement ages in order to protect the gold-standard defined benefits schemes and protect the lower paid.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph he wrote: “It may be that those who oppose change think they can force the government to change its mind. This is a colossal mistake. We will reform public service pensions. This is the time to shape that change, not to try to block it.”

Union leaders reacted with surprise and fury that his announcement had pre-empted the conclusion of the talks, which had been described by both sides as difficult but cordial and ongoing.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the FDA, said: “I am rapidly coming to the view that these negotiations are doomed to failure while the Treasury is in the driving seat, and it is increasingly inevitable that there will be widespread industrial action across the public sector, which would be likely to include the FDA.” Brian Strutton, the GMB union’s national secretary for public services, said: “Is Mr Alexander saying in reaction to the way some unions are proceeding, what we are going to do is call a halt to these negotiations, so for the majority like me, who are trying to negotiate our way through this, the government is actually switching me off, actually pushing me in the dispute camp? Now what’s the point of that?”

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said Alexander’s comments vindicated his union’s decision to stage a walkout. “This proves we were right when earlier this week we described the talks with the government as a farce,” he said. “It’s clear they had no intention of engaging in honest negotiations.”

But Downing Street accused unions which have already announced a strike for 30 June of jeopardising the talks. The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Some unions have already pre-empted the discussions we are having and said they are going out on strike. Those negotiations are ongoing and those discussions with the unions are ongoing. We are trying to have a constructive dialogue with the unions.”

Behind the scenes there is now widespread acceptance that the dispute will end in industrial action, but tactics and timings for co-ordinated strikes beyond 30 June have yet to be agreed, with some favouring joint action while others want sector by sector strikes.

The announcement of the 30 June strike was strongly opposed by some unions which blamed it for provoking the government into making its announcement.

One head of a union involved in the talks said: “The danger is if it’s not impressive it looks half-hearted and weak, and what signal does that send? Ministers are not in doubt about the strength of the feelings in unions, ministers are worried about widescale strikes in the autumn rather than a few in June. But June is ritualistic and tokenistic.”

In a sign of the pressure ministers are now under from all sides, the Confederation of British Industry called on them not to bow to the unions but to toughen up the strike laws. This adds to similar calls from the Conservative right.

Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC, said any further restrictions could spark wildcat action of the kind more often seen in France, and lately in Greece. “You can screw things, you can ratchet up too far and it will all explode,” she said. “It could end up with the sort of disturbances we saw with the poll tax, and randomly unions will lose control and I think David Cameron is quite seized by that as a prime minister. Does he want anarchy? I think he’d rather bash us up a bit and say, quite nastily, go on unions, go and control all this, do it within the law otherwise we’ll get the injunctions out. That’s been his instinct so far.”

The government has ruled out legislating now, but is keeping the option open. Business department sources have suggested they would introduce minimum service guarantees across sectors to control the impact of strikes, rather than raise the threshold for a legal ballot.

Other unions fear that the government will use the existing restrictions governing ballots to overturn strikes in the courts. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, which is preparing to ballot 1.2m members, said: “We’ve got to prepare our case so we can argue the case out in court if needs be.”

Action plans

The Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives have a mandate to formally ballot members for the first time in their histories.

The British Medical Association will also consider the prospect of a ballot for the first time since the 1970s.

The Public and Commercial Services Union represents 250,000 lower paid civil servants, and its general secretary Mark Serwotka is among the most militant calling for the 30 June strike.

The National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) are hamstrung by complications of balloting over the school summer holidays into joining the 30 June strike or risk getting left behind in the autumn. It will be the first strike ever by the ATL. The University and College Union is joining them.

The National Association of Head Teachers will also now ballot members.

Unison has 1.2 million members in the pension scheme and is almost certain to ballot for industrial action ahead of autumn strikes. The challenge for Unison of balloting is daunting with members in 3,000 different organisations. They are already anticipating that their ballot will be challenged by the government in the courts.

FDA represents senior civil servants – the most senior mandarins in the government – and has a mandate to ballot secured at their recent annual conference.

GMB has large number of members in local authorities and will move towards a ballot if talks collapse. General secretary Paul Kenny warned last week that the government would face the “biggest civil disobedience campaign” if they tried to change strike laws.

Trades Union Congress is leading talks with ministers, attempting to marshal the needs of members. They are furious that ministers pre-empted talks with a non-negotiable offer this week. The TUC also has its own problems, its huge national day of action in March is unlikely to be repeated in the short term because of funds being short.

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