Union leaders warn of 'long, hard and dirty' battle over pensions

Ministers accused the unions of jumping the gun because negotiations on the pension shake-up are continuing

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Trade union leaders warned that the dead will be left unburied and rubbish uncollected as they announced plans for the biggest programme of strikes for a generation over the Government's decision to cut public sector pensions.

Officials raised the spectre of the 1978-79 "Winter of Discontent" as another 10 unions announced that they will ballot more than 2m members on industrial action.

The first "day of action" will be held on 30 November, the day after the Chancellor George Osborne unveils his autumn economic statement. Action will include one-day walkouts to lunchtime rallies, and is expected to range from senior civil servants to dustmen.

Workers being balloted include firemen, hospital and ambulance workers, police support staff, teachers and lecturers, care workers, meals-on-wheels staff, prison officers, refuse collectors, street cleaners and cemetery workers.

Four unions representing civil servants and teachers held a one-day strike in June, and yesterday the University and College Union announced that 77 per cent of its members had voted in favour of action over pensions.

Students at 67 universities could face disruption from next month, including a work-to-rule by lecturers, who may set exams but refuse to mark them.

After the TUC conference in London voted unanimously in favour of co-ordinated action, 24 public sector unions agreed their detailed strategy at a "council of war".

They are preparing for a "long haul" running through to next summer, with warnings that the London Olympics and celebrations to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee could be disrupted.

"We are talking about something that is long and hard and dirty," said Brian Strutton, national secretary for public services at the GMB. "We are assuming this will be a huge setpiece conflict running for a long time."

Ministers accused the unions of jumping the gun because negotiations on the pension shake-up are continuing. They said the talks could continue until December so there was no justification for taking action in November.

Downing Street said the proposed action was "very disappointing", while Mr Osborne appealed to the unions to halt what he called "this deeply irresponsible action".

Ministers said they would not back down on their plans to shave £2.8bn a year off the pensions bill by 2014-15 as this would unsettle the financial markets. But they said they were open to "different ways of cutting the cake".

However, on the final day of the TUC conference, union leaders queued up to condemn the Government's stance and declared that the talks were making no progress.

Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, said there was "huge anger" over the pensions proposals and said 30 November would see "the biggest trade union mobilisation in a generation".

He added: "We remain absolutely committed, in good faith, to seeking a fair, negotiated settlement of this dispute so that this action will not be necessary. But the Government needs to understand the strength of unions' resolve."

Labour urged both sides to step back from the brink.

Angela Eagle, the shadow Chief Treasury Secretary, said: "Ministers must show a willingness to conduct proper and meaningful negotiations rather than pursuing a path of deliberate confrontation. But unions should also demonstrate they intend to exhaust every option of reaching a settlement."

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