by Caroline Colebrook
OVER 1,000 local government workers last Wednesday, 22nd November, lobbied their MPs in Westminster and attended a rally at Central Hall Westminster organised by several public sector trade unions to press home their claim for a decent deal for the 1.5 million members of the local government pensions scheme. They included dinner ladies, teaching assistants, social workers, refuse collectors, home helps, police support staff and many other workers and the event was timed to coincide with a House of Commons debate on their pensions. But two days later the unions were accusing Local Government Minister Phil Woolas of a “hostile intervention” that effectively “spiked” talks between the Government and unions, at which progress was being made to settle the long-running pensions dispute.
Woolas had written to unions and the employers asking them to negotiate directly. But minutes before the employers were due to meet to consider fresh proposals from the unions, he made a statement in the Commons announcing a new pension scheme for England and Wales.
Neither the employers nor the unions knew anything whatsoever about the statement.
The employers and trade unions had written to Woolas explaining that significant progress was being made in the talks. Earlier in the week Keith Sonnet, deputy general secretary of the giant public sector union Unison, asked Woolas not to make any statement until after the talks had been concluded, but received no reply.
Sonnet said: “The Local Government Minister, Phil Woolas, has spiked these crucial talks in a totally unnecessary and hostile intervention. “We were making significant progress, with the employers just about to consider fresh proposals aimed at solving the long dispute.”
Peter Allenson, national organiser for the Transport and General Workers’ Union, said that the actions of Woolas in undermining the negotiations “simply beggared belief” and made him appear like “Calamity Phil”. “The TGWU was looking forward to a constructive set of talks with the employers based on our successful lobby this week. We knew what we wanted to achieve and we felt the omens were good for a decent set of negotiations,” he said. “But more importantly today will be seen as a slap in the face by a Labour minister for thousands of low-paid workers we are fighting for. It does Mr Woolas’ credibility no good at all.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “This is an absolutely irresponsible act. Neither the employers nor the unions knew anything about the Minister’s proposed actions. “He went to ground and ignored our approaches. Is this the way to engender partnership working or to promote good industrial relations?”
Unison is now calling on Woolas to allow the talks to continue in an attempt to reach an agreement, unfettered by the terms of the parliamentary statement.
Unless this happens, Unison says it will have no alternative but to move towards a strike ballot of nearly one million members in the local government pension scheme.
Last March more than one million workers did take strike action on this issue. Further strike action was called off to allow these talks to take place.