Unison members vote to strike over pensions
More than one million public sector workers set to walk out on 30 November as government and union bosses row over 29% turnout
Unison, Britain’s largest public sector union, has voted in favour of holding strikes on 30 November, as the government and union officials traded blows over a turnout that saw just under one in three members take part in the poll.
Unison balloted 750,000 local government workers and 350,000 health employees in Britain’s biggest ever industrial ballot, from nurses to probation officers, over proposed changes to workplace pensions. However, the mandate to strike is based on a 29% turnout with 245,358 members voting yes and 70,253 against.
The turnout was pounced on by the cabinet office minister, Francis Maude, who claimed it showed „extremely limited“ support for walkouts next month. Senior trade union figures dismissed Maude’s reaction, saying participation was high for a ballot of more than one million union members.
Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary, said the „decisive“ yes vote reflected deep concerns over pension reform. He added: „We support the TUC day of action on 30 November, but will be negotiating right up to then and beyond to get a fair deal for our members.“
The vote came 24 hours after the government offered concessions in an attempt to see off a day of action planned for 30 November that could see walkouts and protests by more than two million public sector employees. Those concessions include raising the accrual rate, or the percentage of salary earned as a pension every year, and pledging that anyone within 10 years of retirement from 1 April next year will not see a reduction in their pension pot.
Speaking on Wednesday, the general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, acknowledged the „material“ shift in the government’s position but said preparations for next month’s protests would not be shelved. „As things stand it will certainly be going ahead,“ he said.
Brian Strutton, GMB union’s national secretary for public services and one of the main union negotiators, said the turnout was on a par with strike votes on pension reform under the Labour government. „Turnout is always an issue in the large-scale industrial action ballots and checking back on previous disputes it seems 20-30% is the norm. So Unison’s result looks very respectable and the majority is clear enough to dispel any doubts.“
Another negotiator, Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite, told the Guardian that the government’s latest proposals represented the first serious effort by ministers to negotiate pensions reform after months of stalemate.
„I see this as a start to negotiations. The problem is that it is now November,“ said Cartmail, echoing the GMB’s concerns that the concessions may be „too little, too late“.
The government has refused to backtrack on elements of the changes that still rile the union rank and file, including a decision to uprate pensions and benefits in line with the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index, which rises at a higher rate.
The day of action planned for 30 November will include regional rallies but no central event akin to the March for the Alternative, which saw more than a quarter of a million people take to the streets of London in March this year in a protest against spending cuts. Instead, there is likely to be a focus on smaller displays of dissent including lunchtime protests at workplaces.
Maude, who is leading negotiations with the chief secretary of the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said: „Today’s Unison ballot received a very low turnout – with less than a third of their members even voting – which shows there is extremely limited support for the kind of strike action their union leaders want. But it is extremely disappointing that some union members are still planning to lose a day’s pay and go on strike.
„I appeal to them to visit the Treasury website and read about the generous offer we have made before they take to the streets.“
NHS Employers, which represents major health service employers such as hospitals and mental health trusts in England, said the fact that only one in four of Unison’s 360,000 members in the NHS had voted showed that staff’s dedication to patient care made them unwilling to strike.
„This yes vote is disappointing for the NHS but the majority of staff did not vote. NHS staff are passionate about the care of patients and are reluctant to withdraw their labour. This is reflected in the low number of NHS staff turning out (25 per cent)“, said Dean Royles, the organisation’s director.
Patients would suffer if the day of action went ahead as planned, he claimed. 的“If on this turnout the unions did decide to
press head, that would cause delays in treatment and distress to patients. I would urge all sides to keep on talking and we will play our part in that. It is premature to consider industrial action before discussions have concluded, particularly with a revised offer newly on the table,“ Royles added.