Sunday, September 25, 2011

Employers' responses to the coming pensions strike

As union activists are gearing up to persuade our members to vote for and take strike action on November 30, our employers are responding also.

In local government this has taken the form of unilateral proposals from the employers to implement the Government's proposed £900 Million "pensions tax" on the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) (http://www.local.gov.uk/web/10161/media-releases/-/journal_content/56/10161/2875454/NEWS-TEMPLATE).

The local government employers, as custodians of a funded scheme which invests billions of pounds on behalf of 4.33 Million active, retired and deferred members, have tried to mitigate the worst excesses of the Government's proposals with a plan to increase our retirement age to 66 in 2014 to save money and to offer members a choice between contribution increases of up to 2.5% (from which only the lowest paid would be exempt) or a commensurate reduction in pension benefits (through a reduced "accrual rate") for those who cannot afford this significant drop in take home pay.

UNISON has been absolutely right - as have other unions - in refusing to endorse this attack upon the living standards of our members (now and in retirement) as it is only marginally less awful than that proposed by the Government.

At least the local government employers, having a visible stake in the management of a funded pension scheme, have sought to make their own proposals (however awful). The focus of the NHS employers has been on offering advice to employers on how to cope with industrial action (http://www.nhsemployers.org/Aboutus/Publications/Documents/Industrial_relations_guidance_080911.pdf).

This advice counsels employers to consider "if the unions may be acting unlawfully, whether the employer should take legal action to restrain the action" and although it goes on to hedge this advice about with qualifications which make clear that the authors do not advocate swift recourse to such provocative action anyone who has read (for example) the tribunal decision in the case of Yunus Bakhsh will know that there are NHS employers who might respond enthusiastically to any perceived encouragement to attack trade union activism.

The advice goes on to suggest that "employers will usually start from the position that partial performance of contracts of employment will not be accepted or paid." This position on the part of employers has - regrettably - support from the case of Wiluszynski v Tower Hamlets (which clarified employers' rights to refuse to pay staff carrying out only a proportion of their duties) - though whether health employers would send staff home without pay for refusing to carry out all their contractual duties is a practical rather than a legalistic question. SMART action may still - sometimes - be smart.

Nevertheless, the recent experience of our Barnet local government branch certainly indicates that we need to be prepared to escalate to strike action if the employer frustrates attempts at more limited action by relying on Wiluszynski.

As much as we see different responses, from our employers, to our threat of action, we need both unity and determination - and a preparedness to take the action which will have an impact - if we are to defend the pensions which were won for us by the struggles of former generations of trade unionists.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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