One million workers 'ready to strike'

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Indy Politics

The prospect of months of industrial unrest grew today when the leader of one of the country's biggest unions warned that more than a million public sector workers were set to take strike action in the autumn unless the Government pulls back from its controversial pension changes.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said huge numbers of local government workers and NHS staff were "on the road" to industrial action, highlighting a "perfect storm" of pay freezes and lower pensions.

His warning came ahead of an announcement tomorrow by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) of ballot results for industrial action over moves which they say will see teachers working longer, paying more and receiving less when they retire.

The two unions are balloting almost 300,000 members. The ATL has never taken national strike action before.

The Public and Commercial Services union will announce the result of its strike ballot on Wednesday, raising the prospect of up to 750,000 teachers, civil servants and other public sector staff going on strike on June 30.

Mr Prentis said balloting of around 1.2 million Unison members will start soon unless a crunch meeting with the Government on June 28 leads to a deal.

He warned that the Government was on a "collision course" with public sector unions over pensions as well as cuts to jobs, pay and services, adding: "If we are prevented from reaching agreement we will move to a ballot in the summer or early autumn.

"It will not be one day of action - it will be long-term industrial action throughout all our public services to prevent destruction of our pension schemes.

"I have no doubt that unless the Government pulls back from its attempt to decimate public sector pensions, this union will move to industrial action."

Mr Prentis said planned changes to pensions would lead to public sector workers paying in more, receiving less in retirement and working longer.

He warned of "massive industrial unrest" later in the year, adding; "It is very clear we are on a collision course unless the Government changes its policies."

Unison activists will discuss the prospect of strikes at the union's annual conference next week as well as deciding whether to hold major demonstrations against spending cuts and in support of services such as the NHS.

The Unison leader said 66,000 council jobs had already been axed, a further 172,000 were under threat, and half a million local authority posts will be cut in the next three years, as well as 600,000 private sector jobs.

"The Government wants to attack our pension schemes to make it cheaper for private companies to tender for work.

"Cowboy firms will make cheap bids which will destroy high quality public services."

ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said the response from members to the ballot had been "overwhelming", adding: "I've never seen ATL members so angry about what the Government is doing and I've never seen such determination by members to protect their pensions."

A teacher's pension amounts to around £10,000 a year on average, Dr Bousted said, and they are not "gold-plated".

"They are a modest return for a lifetime of teaching the nation's children."

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "Teachers of all ages are astonished that the Government should be doing this to their pensions."

Hundreds of council workers marched through Southampton city centre today in protest at planned pay cuts as refuse collectors, street cleaners and traffic wardens continue industrial action.

Unite and Unison said the demonstration was the biggest on the South Coast for years amid growing industrial unrest involving increasing numbers of council staff.

Workers at Lincolnshire County Council began industrial action today in protest at job cuts and changes to terms and conditions.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: "This Government's key priority is to ensure that public service pensions remain among the very best and that is why we are currently engaged in ongoing and serious talks with the TUC.

"We have entered into these talks in good faith and are totally committed to them - as we believe are the union representatives taking part - including Unison.

"While these talks are ongoing it is obviously disappointing - even irresponsible - that the PCS union has decided to ballot on industrial action.

"But, whatever the outcome of their vote, we will not be deterred from continuing with these discussions and from our ambition to ensure that public sector workers continue to get a guaranteed pension level - something very few private sector employers still offer.

"We continue to hope that industrial action will not take place, but in the unfortunate event that it does I can assure the public now that all services have highly-developed and tested contingency plans to ensure that their essential services are maintained."