The decision of teaching unions to join the first wave of industrial action against government cuts is “irresponsible and wrong”, Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister, has said, appealing to those planning to strike on 30 June to reconsider.
The minister, who is steering government relations with the public sector unions, condemned the decision of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers to strike over pensions before talks with the government have concluded. He accused the unions’ leadership of acting in their own interest, rather than that of their members or the public.
The strike this month is now likely to see thousands of schools in England and Wales close, with low-ranking civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services union, who work in job centres, ports and courts, poised to join the walk-out when their ballot is returned on Wednesday. That result will coincide with the publication of the latest employment statistics, including the first official picture of the job cuts in the public sector in the first three months of this year, further riling the unions.
Maude told the Guardian: “We hope that no public sector workers will actually go on strike while talks continue. There is a huge amount still on the table; they will at the end still be the best available pensions, better certainly than the vast majority in the private sector.
“It’s very irresponsible of unions to be asking their members, many of whom are anxious about job security anyway, to lose a day’s pay and to go on strike when these talks are ongoing … We very strongly hope that anyone who works in public service will put their own interest and the interest of those they are there to serve ahead of their union leaders.”
The 30 June strike will potentially shut the majority of schools across the country. The education secretary, Michael Gove, has asked officials to look at contingency plans should rolling strike action follow in the autumn, and headteachers are being urged to keep schools open. But there is little the government can do to avoid widespread school closures.
The University and College Union said its members would be joining the June strike, meaning most universities and colleges will also be affected. The National Association of Head Teachers is deciding whether to ballot this week, though that result will not come until after the end of this month.
Most unions had indicated that they would hold back from striking before the talks conclude this summer. Unison, the biggest public sector union, and GMB have both now said that they will move towards a ballot, amid suggestions that the talks are now faltering.
Several sources close to the pension talks said they are struggling to agree even the basic principles. Government sources describe them as “in-depth” and “at a crucial stage”.
Should the talks be fruitless, rolling strike action will follow across the public sector in the autumn, on a scale likely to make June’s walk-out look mild.
Lord Hutton, a former Labour minister, conducted a review of public sector pensions for the coalition, recommending raising employee contributions and the retirement age for state employees from 60 to 66 by 2020. Final-salary schemes will be scrapped and replaced by career averages. Ministers have indicated broadly that they will accept those plans, but will announce details this summer.
The government says the cost of paying for teachers’ pensions is forecast to rise from around £5bn in 2005 to almost £10bn by 2015 as more staff retire and life expectancy increases.
In the NUT’s ballot, 92% voted in favour of strike action, with a turnout of 40%. The ATL result was 83% in favour of a strike on a 35% turnout. The strike will affect both state and private schools.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL – which is considered a moderate union and has never taken strike action before – said: “For the average member [the changes] will be £1,500 a year in increased pension contributions. At a time of a two-year pay freeze, its a 3% cut, which has nothing to do with the health of the scheme. It’s a tax on pensions to pay for the deficit.”
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, the largest teachers’ union, said: “It is disgraceful that the government is pressing ahead with its reforms, which will affect teachers’ pensions. The government knows that they are affordable. This is a policy which has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with politics.”