The Government found itself on an early collision course with millions of public sector workers tonight when the leader of one of the country's biggest unions warned of industrial action over pensions.
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, launched a scathing attack on the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and pledged a campaign against spending cuts.
He told his union's annual conference in Bournemouth that the Government "won't know what hit them" if it takes on public sector workers and cuts services, pay and pensions.
The Government came under attack from several unions today after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg criticised the "gold-plated" public sector pensions system as "unfair" on private sector workers.
Mr Prentis said to loud applause from 2,000 delegates: "If Nick Clegg comes for our pensions, then we will ballot for industrial action."
Mr Prentis said Unison will give full support to any branch taking industrial action to defend jobs, such as library workers in Southampton who are going on strike next week.
He promised to build an alliance with other public sector unions to break the pay freeze on more than a million council workers, warning the Government not to under-estimate their strength of feeling.
"If this Government picks a fight with us, we will be ready, we will be the fiercest defenders of our members and the services they deliver.
"The next four years will test our resolve, but they won't know what hit them."
Mr Prentis said that just a few weeks into the coalition Government, it wanted to "throw" public sector workers on to the dole, freeze their pay and raid their pensions.
Support for children struggling to read had already been withdrawn, plans to build new school playgrounds cancelled and hospital buildings put on hold.
"The biggest danger is that people accept the propaganda that all this is inevitable, but we will stand against those trying to take us down the road to disaster."
Mr Prentis accused the Government of "arrogance" in asking the public and unions where spending cuts should be made, adding: "It's a grotesque version of reality TV - who wants to be a millionaire meets the axe factor.
"Our public services the subject of an obscene lottery. If the wealth of the richest 100 people has increased by 30% in one year, if there's money for council chiefs to give themselves a 30% increase in three years, health authority chiefs a 7% increase in the middle of a recession, if there's money to bail out bankers' bonuses, for war and Trident nuclear weapons, there is money to pay young workers a decent wage, money to protect pensions and for public services."
Mr Prentis said Unison was standing on the threshold of one of the most testing times in its history as he announced plans for a nationwide campaign against public service cuts.
Mr Prentis accused the Government of "peddling lies" over the cost to taxpayers of public sector pensions, saying it was just a few hundred pounds a year per household.
"These pension myths are scaremongering. There are no unreformed, gold-plated pension pots. The average pension in local government is just £4,000 a year, dropping to £2,600 for women."
Mr Prentis said the Government should be encouraging people to save for their retirement, not attacking workers who do.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Ministers are presenting the costs of public sector pensions in a highly selective way. They are not comparing like with like and have not been clear that a main cause of the increased net cost of public sector pensions is their decision to freeze public sector pay."
Brian Strutton of the GMB said: "The hysteria surrounding public sector pension costs has to stop and be replaced by rational discussion."
Unite's assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: "It is deeply ironic and very sad that the Liberal Democrats, who first introduced the state pension with Lloyd George in the 1900s, should now be mounting a right-wing campaign to decimate retirement incomes a century later."
Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the FDA, which represents senior civil servants, said: "Nick Clegg's comments are unhelpful and frankly misleading."Reuse content