AstraZeneca strike and the state of pensions

Drum banged by striker The Union and the firm dispute the number who took part in the walkout

If they believed in divine intervention, striking workers at AstraZeneca's drug factory in Macclesfield would have given up some time ago.

At 1500 BST exactly - as the afternoon walkout in their pensions dispute begins - the heavens open, the rain lashes down and the umbrellas go up.

"Have you got a dry one?" asks one woman hopefully, as the trade union flags are handed out to GMB members.

It was the same during last week's strike, when it poured on their picket parade all day.

But they remain powerless to stop the rain, as powerless - they say - as they were to prevent changes made to their pension scheme earlier in the summer.

Start Quote

We understand that it has shareholders to pay, and the economic situation in the world is difficult, but we believe that AstraZeneca is taking advantage of the economic situation”

End Quote Striker

The company disagrees, arguing that extensive consultation was held with employee representatives and the unions before changes were implemented on 1 July, and that there were changes to the original proposals.

AstraZeneca has also frozen pensionable salaries for those existing members of the defined benefit pension scheme who opt to stay in it.

'Taking advantage'

Similar talks, and similar changes to pension arrangements, are occurring throughout the UK.

So are the Macclesfield strikers fighting for themselves or for all those facing pension changes?

"Nationally, the GMB has sat down with companies that cannot afford to pay pensions, and it has been amicable," says the union's regional organiser and flag distributor Neil Holden.

"But this is a special case," he said of the firm that reported pre-tax profits of £1.9bn in the three months to the end of June.

"A lot of other companies do not make the profits that AstraZeneca do.

Placards AstraZeneca says it must consider its pension deficit

"We understand that it has shareholders to pay, and the economic situation in the world is difficult, but we believe that AstraZeneca is taking advantage of the economic situation."

Looming liability

The final salary pension - or defined benefit scheme - has been closed to new members since 2000.

But the firm says this scheme still represents two-thirds of its total global pension deficit.

It is now giving workers the opportunity to switch to a defined contribution scheme - with higher contributions than for those who joined the DC scheme in the last 10 years.

Despite making £645m in extra contributions during the past decade, the defined benefit scheme still has a deficit of £1.4bn, it says.

Start Quote

The changes made ensure all employees continue to have access to pension arrangements that compare favourably to other organisations in the UK”

End Quote AstraZeneca

And in this nutshell is the kind of debate being held between bosses and unions up and down the country.

'We're negotiating'

Companies say their final salary schemes are unsustainable as we all live longer and these schemes take up a disproportionate amount of costs.

Workers say the pension deal that they signed up for when they took - and stayed loyal to - a job is being ignored.

So what is the answer?

When asked, those on the picket line in Macclesfield say the dispute is "about our pensions".

When pressed, they say the company should be sitting around a table and negotiating. The company says it has.

When quizzed on exactly what will get them back to work, they "can't quote numbers" but just want a deal their union representatives think is fair.

Meanwhile, in a statement, AstraZeneca says that striking is not in anyone's best interests.

"The changes made ensure all employees continue to have access to pension arrangements that compare favourably to other organisations in the UK," it adds.

Proud
Picket armband There have been three walkouts so far

Standing with a placard on the latest of three recent strike dates, one woman's position appears typical.

She says she cannot, and will not, give her name.

But having worked at the company for nearly 20 years, she is not too far from the company retirement age of 55.

She loves her job, she says, adding she is proud of where she works. Now she wants a deal that is "as close to what I was going to get".

"You do not want to strike, but I am very disappointed in what the company has done," she says.

Drumming-up support

The AstraZeneca plant has been in Macclesfield for 50 years and this is the first strike action in that time.

According to the GMB, about 300 workers have taken part in the action - consisting of three walkouts, each lasting four hours.

AstraZeneca AstraZeneca is among the UK's largest pharmaceutical firms

The drugs firm estimates there was a maximum of 250 who walked out on the earliest strike date, and 185 people striking on Thursday, among a workforce of 2,500.

Among them is a long-serving employee who explains that the factory has been a massive boost to employment in Macclesfield.

The plant is the company's second largest worldwide and makes the anti-cancer treatment Zoladex, used in the treatment of prostate and breast cancer.

"We help save lives," he says.

The man wants to stay. And while retirement might feel a long way away - he says he will stand shoulder to shoulder with workers, literally banging a drum for the best pension they can get.

Behind him an electronic sign urges people to complete their annual employee survey.

On the picket line - as the drum is banged and horns are blown - some workers' views on pensions are being played out clearly.

But a solution may be much tougher to compose.

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