UK Politics

Some unions hell-bent on strikes, Danny Alexander says

Public sector workers strike (June 30 2011)
Image caption Some civil servants across the UK took part in a pension strike in June this year

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has said some unions are "hell-bent on strike action" over changes to public sector pensions.

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme the government wanted to talk directly to workers - rather than go via unions - about the revised pensions offer.

Their interests must not be "set aside in the interests of trade union leaders who want to go on strike", he added.

For Labour, Douglas Alexander said more compromise was needed "on both sides".

Last week, the government offered to change its plans, which are aimed at cutting the cost of funding public service pensions at a time when life expectancy is increasing.

Among the concessions made was a proposal for more generous accrual rates - the rate at which pensions build up in value - than previously planned, and higher "cost ceilings", the limit on contributions paid by the government.

'Most important people'

Unions have welcomed the changes, but say there are still significant problems with the plans.

They are continuing to prepare for co-ordinated strikes on 30 November - and on Thursday, members of the largest public sector union, Unison, voted to join those already committed.

Danny Alexander told the BBC the government had made a "significant" and "generous" new offer, and he wanted to make sure that was communicated to the workers concerned.

"The most important people here are not the trade union leaders. They're the individuals nurses, teachers and civil servants," he said.

"This week, and over the next couple of weeks, we will be communicating directly to 2.5m public servants across this country to explain to them what it is the government is offering.

"In those people's hands is the decision about whether or not to go on strike. In those people's hands is the influence on the unions."

Asked whether he was, in effect, going over the heads of union leaders, Mr Alexander replied: "I think most of the unions, the moderate unions, want to reach an agreement, but there are some who seem desperate, hell-bent if you like, on strike action.

"What we need to make sure is that the interests of public servants are not set aside in the interests of trade union leaders who want to go on strike."

'Further negotiations'

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said the revised offer was "a welcome step forward", but more needed to be done.

"I think there needs to be further negotiations," he said.

"None of us wants a strike.

"We think there needs to be further compromise on both sides.

"The public sector trade unions need to recognise that we're all going to have to work longer and contribute more in the future. On the other hand, I think there are some very specific details that need to be looked at [by the government]."

Douglas Alexander said the lowest paid public sector workers, for example part-time nurses, would still bear the brunt of the planned changes to their pension arrangements.

The "day of action" on 30 November is being organised by the TUC and could involve members of 20 trade unions in the public sector.

Six already have a mandate to join, and if all the others vote in favour, it could be the biggest co-ordinated strike since 1979.

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