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Unions force Government to retreat on pension plans

Nick Bird, Assistant Secretary, PCS Norfolk & Suffolk DWP branch

Planned strike action by up to 1.5 million public sector workers has forced the Government to retreat on its policy of increasing their retirement age from 60 to 65. The local government and civil service unions involved in the dispute called off the strikes scheduled for 23 March after the Government agreed to revoke its regulations and enter into negotiations.

Alan Johnson, the Minister for Work and Pensions, said: "I recognise that there are concerns about whether…a genuine dialogue has been able to take place…The Prime Minister agrees and has tasked me with making a fresh start on discussions with the trade unions. I am very clear that in those talks all aspects of the Government's proposals will be open to discussion and negotiation." Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott agreed to cancel changes to the local government pension scheme that were due to be implemented on 1 April.

It is clear that the decisive majorities for action in a series of strike ballots, along with the unions' agreement to co-ordinate action, have forced the Government to back down, fearing the possibility of the largest strike since 1926 in the run up to the General Election.

Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis said: "Our aim throughout talks with the Deputy Prime Minister has been to have these regulations revoked and to open negotiations on how we can have a viable, sustainable pension scheme that will benefit all. We have achieved both these objectives and we now look forward to real talks on the future of the pension schemes."

Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS, added: "Through our positive campaigning and vote for industrial action, what was previously deemed as set in stone and non-negotiable is now open for negotiation representing a hard won change of policy by the Government. We welcome the Government's step back from confrontation and the recognition that raising the public sector pension age without negotiation was a step too far."

Many trades unionists will be frustrated that the strikes have been called off and sceptical about the Government's offer to open negotiations, and will wonder how long this spirit of reconciliation will last after the General Election. The tactic of committing to talks on the eve of a strike, only to offer the most marginal concessions, is hardly original. It is designed to divide members between those who want to push ahead with action to underline the support for our case and those who think negotiations must be exhausted first.

It is important that all the unions representing public sector workers remain united in their resolve to defend our pension rights and stand ready to take industrial action should the Government's newfound desire to talk dissipate in the spring air along with the election night fireworks.

 

March 2005

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