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'Further strike action is still on the table if pension talks fail'

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The final pension offer will be put to our members in a ballot when we’ve reached the best deal possible, says Christina McAnea

At Unison we started 2012 as we finished 2011 - determined to get the best deal possible in the pensions dispute for all of our members.

In the second week of January, our health service executive met for our third pensions summit, in which it examined the progress we have achieved in the sector discussions on potential changes to public sector pensions. More than 100 of our
key national and regional elected health activists voted to finalise talks in the next few weeks along the terms set out in the Heads of Agreement, reached before Christmas.

And so the talks are now entering an intense phase but, should they fail at any point, Unison’s ballot for industrial action is still live - this means that the option of strike action is still on the table.

“When we are satisfied that we have reached the best deal possible through negotiation, we will put the full final offer to our health worker members in a ballot”

When we are satisfied that we have reached the best deal possible through negotiation, we will put the full final offer to our health worker members in a ballot. We will also include advice to members explaining that, if they reject the offer, they must be prepared to take part in sustained industrial action.

That is not to say that taking strike action is an easy decision. It isn’t. In fact it is the last resort. It takes a huge amount of courage for a health worker to vote to strike but, back in November, 82% of Unison’s health worker members decided to do just that.

It was their first strike in nearly 30 years but it was felt that government intransigence left them little choice. And that courage made a difference. After eight months of stalemate, government ministers waited until the eve of our ballot announcement to come forward with improvements - not a coincidence. Add to that the formidable show of force on 30 November, when Unison members joined more than 2 million public sector workers at rallies, on marches and on picket lines around the country, and government ministers knew that we meant business.

Since the strike we have secured some important improvements to the government’s offer on pensions. There is now increased protection for people within 10 years of retirement, which is tapered down to give those up to 13 years from retirement some cushioning.

Health workers earning less than £26,000 will not face an increase in contributions this year - a real boost for many workers stuck on a pay freeze as inflation remains stubbornly high.

Crucially, we have also secured from government a commitment to further talks around retirement ages for emergency service workers.

An improved accrual rate - the rate at which people can build up their pensions - is also a real step forwards, as is a commitment to “fair deal” protection on pensions, which means that staff who are transferred out to private or other healthcare providers will be able to retain their NHS pension. As the government pushes ahead with its plans to fragment the NHS, this is a significant win.

I have no doubt that the action taken by Unison members on 30 November and the threat of ongoing industrial action had, and continues to have, a huge impact on the negotiations.

Unison is a proudly democratic union. We exist for and derive our strength from our members. Not only has this strength helped us in our negotiations over the past few months, but also it has encouraged a lot more people to join us. And it is these members - old and new - who will decide whether to accept the final offer when the time comes for us to take it
to them.

Christina McAnea is national secretary for health at Unison

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