Why we plan to strike on 30 November

Raising pension contributions is a hardship tax on public sector workers to pay down the deficit.

A man walks past a sign held by striking public sector workers on June 30, 2011
Source: Getty Images

Millions of public sector workers are gearing up for the biggest strike in living memory. Government ministers have pushed paramedics, teaching assistants, dinner ladies, nurses and social workers into taking action with their unprecedented attack on pensions.

We are strong, united and determined in our action - and we know we can count on the wider Labour movement for support. UNISON has said from the start that we want to reach a negotiated settlement, and that still stands. UNISON is willing to take part in scheme specific talks, right up until 30 November and beyond - we want a firm offer.

Our members voted decisively for action, but it's not a decision that they took lightly. Most UNISON members are low paid women in the caring professions. They go to work day in, day out, to make their communities better places in which to live and work. Indeed, with pay frozen at a time of stubbornly high inflation, and with Christmas just round the corner, they can ill afford to lose a day's wages. Their vote shows the colour of their anger over ministers' pensions plans to make them work longer and pay more, all for less in their retirement, coming on on top of heavy job and service cuts.

Public sector workers have already been stung by promises made in Parliament that were never delivered. In his first Emergency Budget, George Osborne promised public sector workers earning less than £21,000 a £250 pay boost - easing the pain of the pay freeze. But for low paid local government workers, this money has never materialised. They've been stuck on the pay freeze for two years, which could stretch to three, stretching family budgets to the limit.

There is no public sector pensions crisis - only four years ago, unions negotiated new schemes to make them affordable and sustainable for the long term. The schemes include a cap and share arrangement in health, so that any increase in costs would have to be borne by employees. The reforms also included a higher retirement age of 65, and other measures including higher contributions from members of between 5 and 8%.

These reforms have meant that the cost of public sector pensions, as a proportion of GDP, will fall, costs have been reduced even more by the switch to using CPI rather than RPI to calculate the annual increase in pensions payments. Both the health and local government schemes are in good shape, with billions more coming in than has to be paid out in pensions every year. The local government scheme also provides a huge boost to the private sector, its funds are worth £140 billion, and own 1.75% of the UK's top FTSE companies.

Under the proposals, the low paid will receive only just enough to keep them above the threshold for means tested benefits when they do retire. The average pension in local government is £3,800 a year, but for women, it's less than £2,800 - just £56 a week. More than half of women pensioners in the NHS receive a pension of less than £3,500 a year.

The real scandal is that two-thirds of private sector workers do not get a single penny from their employers towards their pension, whilst top bosses award themselves generous pensions. It is in no one's interest to see workers in the public or private sector living in poverty and relying on state benefits when they retire - that is just storing up more trouble for the future.

We do not believe a penny of the money raised will go towards pensions - it's nothing but a hardship tax on public sector workers to pay down the deficit. The way to rebuild our economy is not to take more money out of hardworking people's pockets. The austerity agenda is killing growth, boosting unemployment - fuelling the downturn. Our members are striking for their pensions - but their campaign for a fairer economic plan, founded in social democratic principles, will continue long after we reach a deal.

Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.