Unison is sending out ballot papers this week to tens of thousands of local authority social workers and care staff to seek support for a series of national strikes over proposed changes to their pensions.
For the first time in its history, the union is balloting 1.1 million of its members, more than 750,000 of whom are employed in local government.
“We felt that, as a final resort, we had no alternative but to ballot all of our members for industrial action starting on 30 November [with the possibility of further strikes in the future],” said Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison.
Members from other public sector unions, such as Unite, are also expected to walk out next month.
“This would be the biggest industrial action this country has ever seen, but we believe that, after eight months of talks with government, we are nowhere near a solution,” said Prentis.
The government is proposing to increase employee contributions to the Local Government Pension Scheme by 3% on average. Those earning less than £15,000 would be exempt from the rise, but that is likely to push up the contributions required of middle earners, such as social workers.
Chancellor George Osborne noted following the comprehensive spending review last year that taxpayers were shouldering a larger burden of public sector pensions, and said increases to employee contributions would save the Treasury £1.8bn each year over the next three years.
Public sector workers will also be expected to retire later under the plans, in line with the state pension age of 65.
Unison’s ballot closes on 3 November. Public sector unions are due to meet ministers on 24 October, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent industrial action. Prentis said Unison was “willing to negotiate anytime, anywhere”.
He admitted that the ballot would cost “into the millions”, but added: “We believe our members have the right to express their opinions in a ballot. That is the price of democracy.”
Asked if the coalition government was waging a war on the public sector, Prentis replied: “The language can be really demeaning.”
Using care work as an example, he said: “The sector is in crisis and many care workers are paid less than the minimum wage. Yet they are told they face a pay freeze and higher pension contributions; that the private sector is a panacea.
“Morale is at rock bottom.”
He added: “We expect the Labour party and leadership to support this dispute.”
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