Belfast Telegraph

Pensions powderkeg: Public sector shutdown looms

Union leaders have threatened to walk away from talks over pensions reform after the Government detailed plans to require most public sector employees to work longer and pay more for less-generous entitlements in retirement.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander provoked fury by warning public sector workers it would be a “colossal mistake” to reject a deal that was the best they could hope for.

The decision raises the possibility of widespread strikes among public sector workers, with a number of unions in Northern Ireland prepared to ballot for industrial action. The reforms include increasing the general retirement age in the public sector from 60 to 66, moving from a final salary system to benefits based on career-average earnings and raising contributions by an average 3.2%.

But Mr Alexander insisted that those on the lowest incomes would not have to pay any more and that low and middle earners would get roughly the same benefits as they do now.

Union chiefs have responded angrily to Mr Alexander's intervention, accusing him of trying to sabotage negotiations by announcing details of the Government's position to the media.

The GMB threatened to pull out of the negotiations altogether.

Its national secretary for public services, Brian Strutton, said the Government appeared to have “already made its mind up on some of the matters we are negotiating on”.

“If that's right, if that's the Government's position — that they have decided what they want the answer to be — then it is going to make it impossible for us to stay in these negotiations,” he said.

He also described the Government's position on contribution increases as “plain barking mad”.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary Peter Bunting said local trade unions are working closely together.

He said: “A co-ordinated campaign of action will galvanise opposition in Northern Ireland to the cuts in public spending and welfare benefits that will severely damage the fabric of our society, resulting in a huge increase in unemployment in both the private and public sectors and which will create greater inequality and exacerbate the already unacceptable high levels of poverty in Northern Ireland.

“If there is no reversal of these attacks on ordinary working people then we are unfortunately facing a prolonged period of industrial strife, commencing in autumn or earlier where specific services and jobs are under immediate threat.”

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