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Pensions: the power of the strike threat

Whether or not the Coalition’s latest proposals on public sector pensions constitute ‘a very fair offer’ – as David Cameron insists – is a question best left to those with sounder knowledge of actuarial principles than I shall ever acquire.

Yet one thing is immediately clear. No improvements whatsoever would be on the table without the threat of a one day walkout across the public sector on November 30, and that in itself is significant.

I am racking my brains to remember the last time a government even made an effort to avert an impending stoppage by coming up with some meaningful concessions.

Recent decades have seen administrations of all complexions pride themselves on their ability to tough out any and all industrial action. Never was the intrinsic contempt in which New Labour held affiliated unions more obvious then when the very people that ultimately pick up the party’s bar tab went on strike.

But things are obviously changing, and what today’s talks underline is that the strike weapon is far from dead. The Tories and the Lib Dem are clearly desperate to avoid matters coming to a head at the end of this month.

No doubt we shall see the media dust off 1970s retro rhetoric about unions ‘holding the country to ransom’. The alternative take – that the unions have no other way of defending their members’ standards of living in retirement – will not get much of an airing.

The truth is that the vast majority of union officials are anything but militant, and habitually use even the semi-promise of a climbdown by employers as an opportunity to call off a dispute.

It probably avails little to call on Brendan Barber to throw off the shackles of caution and reveal his inner Red Robbo to a hitherto unsuspecting world.  But with the employers clearly on the back foot, public sector unions should step up the pressure and press on with plans for #N30.

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