Industrial strife over pensions at Barclays as retirement crisis hots up

Union threatens strikes over bank's plans to axe its pension scheme. More could follow, says James Moore

Barclays might have avoided the sort of disasters that forced rivals Lloyds TSB and Royal Bank of Scotland to go cap in hand to the Government. But if its executives were congratulating themselves, they are going to have to postpone the celebrations: the bank with the blue eagle now has a serious industrial relations problem to contend with.

The banking union Unite plans to ballot 25,000 members about strike action over the bank's decision to close its final salary pension scheme. The bank is the first to target existing members – all of them have closed their schemes for new members – and how the dispute plays out will be closely watched by rivals, particularly Lloyds Banking Group, which is reviewing its pension arrangements following its merger with the stricken HBOS.

Unite's move comes after a week when the mounting pensions crisis facing Britain has been heating up again. Deloitte, the accountancy firm, on Wednesday estimated that the combined funding shortfall of schemes run by FTSE 100 companies had more than doubled to £300bn since the beginning of the year (Barclays contributes something over £2bn). On the same day, American Express – which offers a far less generous pension providing no guarantees to workers – unilaterally said it would stop paying any contributions into it.

Ros Altman, the former government pensions adviser, says: "The lasting legacy of the credit crunch will be the decimation of future pension provision. Employers are increasingly withdrawing from pensions and we will face a situation where we have armies of pensioners in poverty."

Unite has decided that enough is enough. The union says that when it consulted members among Barclays staff, 92 per cent were in favour of a strike ballot – and with 25,000 members across a huge swath of Barclays UK operations, it has the potential to cause the bank a serious problem.

The turnout was 35 per cent, which is remarkably strong for a postal ballot involving letters sent to members' homes. Similar exercises on issues such as pay achieved turnouts of less than a fifth.

The replacement Barclays is offering, called "After Work", is still generous. It offers a guaranteed cash sum when a member retires, plus the opportunity to top it up with a second scheme that the company will also pay into but provides no guarantees. Crucially, however, the income members receive from "After Work" after they retire is not guaranteed, by contrast to the plan that Barclays wants to close, which pays a percentage of an employee's final salary.

Unite says that staff are in effect facing a stealth pay cut. Derek Simpson, Unite joint general secretary, says: "It is unacceptable that Barclays are proposing this unilateral change to workers' pensions. Unite members will not stand by as their employer rides roughshod over their retirement security. The forthcoming ballot within Barclays will send a strong message to private sector employers across the economy. Unite will not accept businesses using the economic downturn as a means to erode the important terms and conditions of our members."

The TUC says that unions accept that employers are facing pressure over pensions, particularly as people live longer, which is progressively raising the cost of final salary schemes. Where this is the case, unions will talk. Nigel Stanley, head of campaigns, cites recent discussions with BT as an example. But he says many companies are simply using the recession as an excuse to cut costs.

"This is not acceptable. The pensions regulator gives companies up to 10 years to deal with a deficit. By that time the recession should be over – we'll probably be in the next one – and the stock market will have risen to deal with deficits. We think that a lot of what is going on is that employers are effectively stripping out costs. Unions will resist this," he says.

Strikes over pay are relatively rare today, particularly given the recession and rising unemployment. But industrial action over pensions – or the threat of it – is increasing.

However, some pensions experts argue that the private-sector final salary scheme is doomed, one way or another, and unions may be better off fighting for the best possible replacements.

Tom McPhail, head of pensions research at Hargreaves Lansdown, is of this view. "The problem is that all these schemes have been handing out guarantees which they can't afford to pay. Unions would be best advised to negotiate good alternatives."

Mr McPhail also says the current pensions crisis could be just the start of a much wider financial time-bomb.

"It's not just pensions. There is also the looming spectre of paying for long-term care for an ageing population. The bill for that is potentially horrific."

Ms Altman says politicians are negligent in failing to address the issue. She describes state provision as hopelessly inadequate, and argues that as employers pull out of pensions, the Government will need to take action.

She describes the review into pensions by Lord Turner, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, as "a wasted opportunity". While the subsequent legislation set up individual pension accounts from 2012 which employers will have to contribute to (thus forcing the like of Amex and any followers to come home from self-declared pensions holidays), she says it does not go nearly as far as it should.

"At the moment, politicians are just sticking their heads in the sand. In 2012 most people should be saving around 8 per cent of their salaries, but it needs to be more like 15 per cent or even more."

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat pension spokesman, says he plans to call for a second "Turner review" to address these issues and the growing imbalance between generous public-sector arrangements – where final salary schemes are still the norm – and the increasingly threadbare private-sector provision.

"This is an urgent issue that has regrettably been kicked into the long grass," he says.

In the meantime, Barclays, which has enjoyed a good relationship with Unite until now, says it wants to talk: "It is our firm belief that the interests of all stakeholders are best served through continued open dialogue. We are therefore disappointed that Unite have chosen not to re-engage.

Unite says that it is happy to talk if Barclays will only commit to not destroying its pension scheme.

The bank's industrial relations face a chill winter – and it is unlikely to be alone.

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