Pensions anger threatens to boil over

2004

Mounting anger in the UK over the loss of workers’ pension rights could spill over into mass industrial action, according to a strong message from the TUC.

Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Pension Funds, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said that workers were no longer prepared to accept cuts in their pension rights.

"Pensions have shot up the union agenda,” he said. “This is not because they have suddenly become of interest to activists and union leaders, but because they are a top concern for people at work.

"They feel let down, betrayed and angry at the retreat from good pensions provision by too many employers.

"I warn today that staff will no longer meekly accept a cut in their pension rights. They understand that the pension is part of their pay packet."

Commentators say that the highly unusual warning is indicative of the strength of feeling amongst union members as companies reduce pension benefits and replace final salary schemes with defined benefit arrangements.

One in four final salary pension schemes closed last year and half of the UK's biggest employers have closed their final salary schemes to new entrants.

Later this month Britain’s railway workers are threatening travel chaos with a walk-out over changes to their generous final-salary pension scheme.

"We have already seen industrial action, more is currently threatened and, if further attempts to cut pensions are made, then the inevitable result will be further industrial action,” Mr Barber said.

While workers had negotiated and made sacrifices to save a pension schemes with genuine problems, he added that too many employers simply saw switching to lower-cost defined contribution schemes as a ‘magic bullet’ solution to their pension problems.

"Employers have retreated from their part of the bargain,” he said, adding: “What kind of message does that send out to both current and future employees about the attitude of the company to its staff?

"Those employers that retain a commitment to decent pension provision, and are open and honest in their dealings with staff will find it easier to attract the right people, and to keep them. They will surely be the more successful businesses in the long run."

Mr Barber also slammed boardroom "double standards" for exacerbating the sense of anger and betrayal many workers felt.

"Too often these days, we see companies piling huge amounts into the pensions of directors while claiming that pensions for staff are too expensive. We have seen some frankly despicable examples of companies shutting salary-related schemes for staff but keeping them in the boardroom and cases of supposedly closed schemes admitting new directors."

Highlighting the UK’s growing pensions crisis, Mr Barber also told politicians that radical action was needed to address the issue and that “tinkering will not do”.

"Let me conclude by saying we want pensions if not to be boring again, certainly to be a lot less interesting. But that is not going to happen unless we all face up to the hard questions we need to answer and the difficult decisions that we must all make.”