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Unions Threaten 'Biggest Strike Since 1926'

By Matthew Tempest, Guardian Unlimited

United Kingdom

September 14, 2005 

Union leaders today warned the government that pushing through a rise in the public sector retirement age to 65 could provoke the biggest industrial action since the General Strike of 1926.

Industrial action by eight unions protesting to the plan was only narrowly averted before the general election by the promise of talks. Alan Johnson today apologised to unions at the TUC conference in Brighton for the failure to consult them on that occasion.

Dave Prentis, the leader of Britain's biggest union, Unison, and Mark Serwotka, the leader of the public and commercial services union, said they now had a further five unions, 13 in all, prepared to ballot for strike action if the government forced through a mandatory higher retirement age.

With talks due to resume on reforming public sector pension provision in September, the row could flare up again embarrassingly at the Labour party conference in two weeks' time.

In a seemingly conciliatory conference speech this morning, Mr Johnson told delegates that attempting to force a change on the public sector this spring was a mistake.

He said: "I fully accept that our approach was wrong," before going on to insist that further changes would be "discussed and negotiated" with the trade unions.

Mr Johnson mooted a "change in the retirement at 60 ethos", "giving individuals a choice about when they retire - be it 60 or 65, or later", but warned the whole scheme must be "capable of withstanding the demographic changes that are bound to have a radical effect on pension provision."

But a senior Whitehall source insisted that "the status quo was not an option" and that it was "unsustainable, both fiscally and in the eyes of the taxpayers, for the public sector not to do the same" as private sector workers, who retire at 65.

Union leaders reacted with fury. Mr Prentis warned that 13 public sector union bosses had last night agreed a united front and would "take industrial action to protect pensions".

He pointed out that the successful ballots in March for industrial action would have brought out around 1.5 million public sector workers, making it the biggest stoppage since the 1926 General Strike. With 13 unions now agreed, he said, 3m public sector workers could strike.

Mr Prentis said: "I have never known such anger in 30 years of union negotiating life. The government's policy in chaos."

The government has suggested phasing in a new retirement date between 2013 and 2018. But Mr Prentis said categorically: "A shift in date of when it kicks in is not sufficient."

There were also signs that while the unions put on a united front, they were attempting to play up apparent divisions between government ministers.

Two dates - of September 18 and September 21 - have been suggested for a resumption of talks, but Mr Prentis said: "Alan [Johnson] has played for time today. There's no commitment beyond a commitment to negotiate.

"[But] John Prescott is making it clear that Alan Johnson's talks won't apply to local council workers."

Mr Prentis asked who was in control of the talks - Mr Johnson, a former union leader; Mr Prescott, who looks after local authority affairs; or David Blunkett, the actual work and pensions secretary.

Mr Serwotka, who represents job centre staff already angry at plans to privatise some of their functions, said the unions were in favour of a "choice" of retirement dates, but warned the government would be "frankly mad" to take on 13 unions with more than 3 million members across the public sector, including the NHS and fire services.

While stressing a desire to negotiate, Mr Prentis and Mr Serwotka both said they foresaw no problems in obtaining strike ballot authority for strikes, whether one-day or indefinite.

He said: "13 unions were united last night at the fringe [meeting]. We are united. There will be no divide and rule.

"The fire, health and public sectors will all be affected. If the government impose a higher age [of retirement], in my view a strike is inevitable."

The 13 unions agreeing to act in concert are the NUT, AUT, Prospect, NATFHE, GMB, FBU, ATL, FDA, Amicus, Unison, NASUWT, POA and the T&G.

The Royal College of Nursing, traditionally less militant than some of the other unions, has also expressed support.

Separately from the specific issue of the public sector retirement age, the whole issue of pension reform is under review, with a report by Adair Turner due in November.

This morning he told the TUC that there were many problems with the TUC position of making private pension provision mandatory on employers, not least that studies showed it would reduce cash wages over time.

He also revealed that an entire chapter of his review would be devoted to investigating a phased retirement window, allowing people to work part-time on a partial state pension while deferring full retirement.

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