Public sector gears up for mass walkout

By Alex Stevenson

Teachers are to be joined by 250,000 other public sector workers in a mass walkout at the end of the month.

The Public and Commercial Services union backed a strike on June 30th, the same day as industrial action planned by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

The result of the PCS vote came in this afternoon, with 61.1% of the union's membership backing a strike. Turnout was 32.4%.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude pointed out this meant that less than a fifth of PCS members had actively supported the strike.

"We continue to hope that industrial action will not take place, but in the unfortunate event that it does we can assure the public now that all services have highly developed and rigorous contingency plans," he said.

The PCS union believes backing strike action is "the only way" to resist the government's "unprecedented attacks" on public sector workers.

They are angry that the coalition's deficit reduction programme is unnecessarily hurting the public sector.

"This result shows that public servants, who provide vital services from the cradle to the grave, will not stand back while everything they have ever worked for is taken from them," PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said.

"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. 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 on June 30th and beyond."

The PCS union said ministers had fixed the terms of negotiation over public sector pensions in a way which would seriously undermine the possibility of an agreement being reached.

The switching of the indexing of pensions from retail price index (RPI) inflation to consumer price index (CPI) inflation – the lesser of the two – has already been introduced.

Union leaders have said they have already begun receiving letters from retirees whose pensions are less than they had hoped. A two-year pay freeze currently underway has frustrated those still in the workplace.

The PCS union covers a range of public services, including the courts, coastguards, border staff, tax collectors and welfare staff.

Yesterday the NUT announced its ballot saw 92% vote in favour of strike action, with a turnout of 40%.

Talks with the government were dismissed earlier this month by general secretary Christine Blower, who told <i>politics.co.uk</i> she did not believe ministers were negotiating "in good faith".

She said yesterday: "The government's unnecessary attack on public sector pensions has convinced NUT members that there is no alternative but to support strike action.

"It is disgraceful that the government is pressing ahead with its reforms which will affect teachers' pensions.

"The government knows that they are affordable. This is a policy which has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with politics."

Eyebrows in the teaching sector have been raised by the traditionally moderate ATL union's decision to join the NUT in a walkout.

"Balloting for a strike was very much the last resort to try to make the government realise the strength of opinion against its plans to fundamentally change the pensions of teachers and lecturers," a spokesperson explained.

"They probably know better than most MPs what life is like for the majority of people since they are in daily contact with children and parents from all walks of life.

"They are themselves in a two-year pay freeze, teachers and lecturers are facing redundancy, will lose child benefits and other benefits, are paying more VAT, their children stand to lose educational maintenance allowances and their children will also have to pay higher tuition fees to go to university."

Unions are warning that "hundreds of thousands" more public sector staff could join them in the months to come.

Mr Maude said that former pensions secretary John Hutton's recent report on public sector pensions had prompted a cross-party consensus that they needed to be made "fairer and more sustainable".

"Public sector pensions will remain among the very best, providing a guaranteed pension level for all employees. Today very few private sector employers still offer guaranteed pension levels," he added.

"“But people today are living much longer. So Lord Hutton recommended that people should work for longer before drawing their pension.

"And we're asking employees to pay more towards the cost of their pension. This makes for a fairer balance between what employees pay and what other taxpayers have to pay."