Britain is facing the largest wave of strikes since the 1980s as about 750,000 public-sector employees stage a protest against threatened changes to their pensions. The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union yesterday announced that its members had voted to join teachers and university lecturers in a one-day co-ordinated walk-out on 30 June.
There is the prospect of much larger strikes in the autumn, with other unions joining the fight. The ballot by the 300,000-strong PCS provoked fresh hints from the Government that strike laws could be rewritten if there is a return to 1980s-style union militancy.
The strike could force thousands of parents of state school children to take a day off work or make childcare arrangements unless the handful of senior teachers uninvolved in the action keep their schools open.
Three teaching unions with a combined membership of more than 440,000 teachers and lecturers have already voted to strike on 30 June. The PCS's decision to join the co-ordinated protest will mean that job centres, government offices, courts and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency will be hit, as well as schools and colleges. Prison staff, community-support police and immigration officials will also be drawn into it.
Britain's largest public-sector union, Unison, is not involved in the job action but is encouraging its 1.4 million members to show support for the strikers in other ways while its leaders decide whether to hold a strike ballot of their own. If they go ahead, the state sector will face unprecedented disruption in the autumn.
The National Association of Head Teachers is also deciding whether to hold a ballot, which could mean senior teaching staff joining the picket lines the next time there is a strike.
Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS, described the 61 per cent vote in favour of a strike as a warning to the Government that public-sector workers are ready for a prolonged fight.
"The Government admits that money cut from pensions will go straight to the Treasury to help pay off the deficit in what is nothing more than a tax on working in the public sector," he said.
"The very modest pay and pensions of public servants did not cause the recession, so they should not be blamed or punished for it. Unless ministers abandon their ideological plans to hollow out the public sector, they will face industrial action on a mass scale."
He dismissed the talks still happening between Government and the unions as a "farce" because ministers have already brought in changes to public-sector pensions which will force state employees to work longer and contribute more before receiving lower pensions at the end of their working lives.
About 50,000 members of the PCS voted to strike, with 10,000 against. Another 20,000 voted for some sort of protest short of a strike. Ministers were quick to point out that the turnout amounted to barely a third of the PCS's total membership.
The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: "What today's ballot result shows is that among PCS members there is extremely limited support for the kind of strike action their leaders want. Less than 20 per cent of their members are supporting this unnecessary industrial action. This is not surprising given that talks with the TUC about public-sector pensions are continuing."
In a separate dispute, Londoners can expect several days of disrupted journeys as Tube train drivers hold a sequence of one-day strikes in support of a sacked colleague. The four days scheduled for strikes all coincide with the Wimbledon tennis championship. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union said yesterday that talks aimed at averting the strikes had broken down.
Unionised staff at the BBC are also being balloted on whether to strike over pay and compulsory redundancies, which could mean action in July.
London's Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, has called on the Government to consider rewriting employment laws to make strikes illegal unless a minimum of 50 per cent of eligible members take part in the ballot.
David Cameron's official spokesman said: "We are actively engaging with the unions and we are keeping the issue of strike laws under review.
"We don't see a compelling case at the present time for changing the strike laws, but we will continue to look at it."
Strikes: When they are - and who wants what
Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)
The PCS has members right across the public sector, including civil servants, immigration staff, tax office staff, court workers, and even coastguards. It says that planned changes to the civil service pension scheme, known as "nuvos" would mean that a 30-year-old earning £24,500 a year would have to pay an extra £61.25 a month, and would lose £309,840 from his or her pension pot. Its members are to join the teachers for a one-day strike on 30 June.
The country's biggest public-sector union, with hundreds of thousands of council staff and NHS employees, is already balloting 30,000 members in various branches over industrial action to protect pay and conditions, but is considering a much more wide-scale campaign against changes to the pension. This would involve "the biggest ballot by any trade union" and could lead to "the largest industrial action since the general strike".
Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)
The union has 78,342 members who are in the Teachers' Pension Scheme. These people would be required to contribute more and work longer for a lower final pension. They plan a one-day strike on 30 June. Members working for independent schools are under threat of being excluded from the pension scheme.
National Union of Teachers (NUT)
Yesterday the union's national executive unanimously endorsed the decision to strike on 30 June. It claims its members would have to pay up to £100 more and work until they are 68, yet could lose as much as £250,000 from their pension pot.
National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT)
NAHT members will not be striking on 30 June, but the union supports the aims of the strike by other teaching union. Its national executive will decide whether to hold a strike ballot which could see headteachers out on strike "in the next few weeks".
National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)
Drivers on the London Underground are embroiled in a dispute separate from other public-sector unions over the sacking of a Northern line driver, Arwyn Thomas, who the union claims was "victimised" for his union activities. The RMT is planning four one-day strikes, starting this Sunday evening, all during the Wimbledon fortnight.
University and College Union (UCU)
UCU members have already been on strike once, on 24 March, in protest at the impact of government policies on their pensions. Their action disrupted lectures at 500 colleges and universities across Britain, most of them further education colleges and former polytechnics. They will repeat the action on 30 June. Thousands of students will get an unscheduled day off as a result.
NUJ (at the BBC)
BBC journalists are due to take part in a strike ballot tomorrow following the threat of compulsory redundancies across the Corporation.
The BBC announced in January that cutbacks would cost the BBC World Service 650 jobs. The NUJ confirmed yesterday that all of its members at the company would be balloted. The results are expected in a month's time.
Why I'm choosing to go on strike
Alice Robinson, teacher from Lancaster "The government proposals will have huge implications for teachers with regard to their pensions. They have been imposed upon us with no negotiation, no discussion. The changes are so unjust and so unfair and unnecessary in order to make the pension system sustainable. Teachers didn't create the deficit."
Michael Kavanagh, Land Registry employee "The main reason is the pension issue. It's something that's been under attack for a number of years. The proposals now mean we will pay substantially more, work longer and receive less. In addition there is the issue of jobs cuts – everyone is exceptionally worried about that. It's clear we have to make a stand before there's absolutely nothing left of public services."
Mick Wood, manager at Leicester College "I'm getting to almost pension age and I'm going to be about £130 a month worse off. That's pretty severe. The plans I was making for retirement are being scrapped because I will have to work for longer to earn the same money to get to what I was expecting to be at."
Julia Neal, secondary teacher from Torquay "I don't believe the teachers' pension scheme is in such bad trouble that we need to take this big hit. It's very bad for the profession – it will detract from the attractiveness of teaching. They are punishing teachers and other public services for something that's not their fault. I'm really fed up with the way we have been treated. We don't have gold-plated pensions."