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