Coalition pushing public sector workers and their families too far

Union members are committed public sector workers who care for the sick, the vulnerable and help educate our children. They do not take action lightly, but this government is pushing them and their families too far.

Dave Prentis is the General Secretary of UNISON, Britain’s biggest public sector trade union with more than 1.3 million members

It’s blow after blow for the country’s 6 million public sector workers – with pay freezes, privatisation, and job cuts. And now, following the news that millions in bonuses are being dished out in the big city banks, public sector workers face a savage attack on their pensions.

The Hutton report may only just have been released, but the Tory-led coalition has already jumped the gun by announcing a 3 per cent hike in employee pension contributions. For many this is a 50% increase. Health and council workers pay between 6 and 8% of their salary into their pension.

This is a huge hike – you can’t expect people to pay more for less. Two thirds of local government workers earn under £18,000 – this is effectively a tax on low paid workers.

The worry is – and studies back this up – that huge hikes in contributions could price workers out of the schemes and see them collapse. This would push millions onto means tested benefits in their retirement – and leave the taxpayer holding the multi-billion pound bill.

Even retired workers have not escaped the pensions raid. The switch to using the CPI rather than the RPI to calculate pension increases will see their value drop by 15%.

For many in public service, working longer is just not an option – it would be a life sentence of work till you drop. Nurses, paramedics, bin men and home carers are just some of the public sector workers who do physically demanding jobs. The demands of the job can wreak havoc on backs and joints – many are forced to retire early on ill health grounds.

A huge number of myths are peddled about the public sector, the most common claim being that pensions are gold-plated. The facts, however, don’t bear this out: most public sector pension payments are low. The average pension in local government is just over £4,000, falling to £2,800 for women – more tin foil than gold plated.

Another popular myth is that a timebomb of huge liabilities is looming on the horizon, when the schemes will have to pay out all their liabilities. Surely no-one believes that all public sector workers will retire on the same day?

Let’s nail the argument that public sector pensions are unsustainable. The local government and NHS pension schemes were renegotiated three years ago to make them sustainable and affordable. The negotiations dealt with the longevity argument – we know people are living longer.

Both the health and council workers’ schemes are cash rich – with more going in than going out. The NHS scheme receives £2 billion more in contributions than it pays out, and this money goes straight to the Treasury. The local government scheme could fund all its liabilities for 20 years, without a single penny more in contributions.

The private sector – which is failing miserably to provide decent pensions for its workers – gets a huge boost from the local government scheme. It invests more than £100bn in the UK economy, including a billion each in the top FTSE companies.

It’s the private sector, where boardroom bosses secure themselves six figure nest eggs and low retirement ages – but close their staff schemes. This is where the real pensions time bomb is lurking. These are the real villains, and a race to the bottom will benefit no-one.

Public sector workers are being unfairly singled out by the Tory-Led coalition, and are bearing the brunt of the bankers’ recession. On behalf of our 1.4 million members, UNISON is sending a clear message to the government that we are one big step closer to industrial action, and we need urgent and meaningful talks over pensions.

Our members are committed public sector workers who care for the sick, the vulnerable and help educate our children. They do not take action lightly, but this government is pushing them and their families too far.

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