Gas engineers vote for action to defend final salary pensions

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Thousands of engineers at Centrica's British Gas subsidiary voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action over pensions yesterday, as the company warned that it was experiencing its busiest November to date for domestic call-outs.

Nearly 6,000 technicians, who install and maintain heating systems, voted by four to one to walk out in the run-up to Christmas while nine to one opted to take disruptive action short of stoppages.

As weather forecasters predicted a particularly severe winter, the GMB general union indicated that shop stewards meeting next Tuesday would choose strike dates within the next four weeks and a work to rule unless the management made concessions.

The engineers are angry over plans by British Gas to close the company's final salary pension scheme to new entrants. The management is proposing that future recruits will be provided with a pension which is based on average salary and who therefore will be paid lower retirement benefits.

The warning of industrial action comes ahead of the CBI conference next week at which the Government will again be warned that Britain is facing a pensions crisis.

Brian Strutton, the GMB's national officer for the gas industry, said his members had shown by "this huge vote'' that they were determined to protect their pensions and those of future British Gas employees. He said there had been a 70 per cent turnout in the ballot and that the management had been shaken by the degree of support for industrial action.

He accused the company of reneging on a deal signed two years ago in which engineers agreed to increase their contributions to protect their retirement benefits: "We urge British Gas to listen to their employees and find a way through the impasse." Mr Strutton said the company should accept the union's offer to review the pension scheme at the time of its next actuarial valuation.

Dave Kendle, the director of British Gas Services, said he was disappointed by the decision and believed that industrial action was "entirely unwarranted''. He said existing engineers were not affected by any changes and that decisions had been made to protect the long-term viability of the final salary scheme for existing employees.

He said the pension package planned for new employees had been recognised by independent financial experts as "one of the best on the market''.

He pointed out that 75 per cent of the UK's final salary pension schemes had already been closed to new members. "We are facing a similar challenge over pensions,'' he said.

He said all efforts would be made to avoid industrial action but he was confident that engineers would continue to provide an emergency service for the most vulnerable customers.