Trade union leaders warned that an "autumn of discontent" had come a step nearer yesterday after the Government refused to water down plans to curb public sector pensions.
Ministers outlined plans to raise pension contributions by an average 3.2% for 2.5 million teachers, civil servants and NHS workers from next April, insisting the £1bn of savings they would bring had already been pencilled in by the previous Government.
Detailed talks on the proposals will take place over the next month before ministers and TUC leaders resume their negotiations in September. Unless the Government softens its stance, a series of co-ordinated strikes looks likely.
Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, said: "Only if the Government demonstrates real flexibility in the coming talks and shows that it is genuinely listening and prepared to change course, will it avoid more unions... planning industrial action later this year."
He warned that millions of public sector workers, already in the middle of a wage freeze and facing a squeeze on living standards, would be forced to pay significantly more into their pensions.
Ministers argued that yesterday's figures should come as no surprise and did not alter the prospects of reaching agreement with the unions. They said that no-one earning under £15,000 a year would face higher pensions.
Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: "We are ensuring those with the broadest shoulders will bear the greatest burden."
Further rises in payments are expected over the following two years to enable the Treasury to cut the public sector pensions bill by £2.8bn a year.
Firefighters became the latest group of workers to warn that industrial action is on the cards. The Fire Brigades Union said a ballot on a nationwide strike is likely soon.
Teachers and heads warned that schools could be disrupted again by strike action this autumn.
Under the plans, a headteacher earning £100,000 a year would have to pay an extra £2,000 in contributions next year. Lower-paid teachers - those starting on £21,000 a year - would only pay an extra £128 a year. An NHS consultant on £130,000 will pay an extra £152 a month, while civil servants will see contributions rise by £20-£140 a month.