More than one million local government workers went on strike on 28 March in defence of their pensions. The action was taken by 11 unions representing council workers such as Unison, GMB and Ucatt.
The action was nationwide and particularly strong in the north of England, Scotland and Wales. Thousands of council offices were affected, more than 17,000 schools sent children home for the day as support staff went out on strike, even ferry services, rail and the Mersey Tunnel were closed.
The Local government Association said that councils had been pushing for unions to exempt staff from action where the closure of services could cause risk to life or limb.
The action was taken because the government and the Local Government Association want to reduce the local government pensions bill including rule-85. This rule allows local government workers to retire at 60 if their age and years of service add up to 85.
However two days after the strike the deputy prime minister John Prescott abolished the rule.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said that that Prescott’s move would “further inflame the anger felt by our members at the way in which they are being treated by their government and their employers.”
Brian Strutton, the GMB’s national secretary, also criticised the move by Prescott and announced more strike days in April.
The Local Government Association argues that keeping the rule and existing pension provision will cost the taxpayer an extra 2 per cent on council tax or £6 billion over the next 15 years.
Chair of the Local Government Association Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart said: “There must be a modern scheme that is affordable, viable and fit for the 21st century. People are living longer and unless action is taken now the cost to individual council tax payers and local government will continue to rise.
“The key aspect of these changes is to make sure the pension scheme does not cost the council taxpayer any more money while at the same time making sure that local government continues to be an attractive place to work in.”
But rather than being too generous, unions argue that existing pension provisions are already poor with the average pension for a local government worker about £3,600 a year and for women as low as £1,500. Also the average retirement age in local government is not 60, as one may believe from the 85-year rule, but just over 64 years.
A series of strikes have been earmarked for the 25, 26, 27 April and possibly during local election day on 5 May.
But the unions have reported that they are in unofficial negotiations about covering existing staff under the local government pension scheme.
There are already precedents in the civil service and education of existing staff keeping their arrangements but new employees being put on the reformed pension scheme.