Cable and Alexander on union strike threats: there’s got to be pensions reform, but we want to negotiate

by Stephen Tall on June 18, 2011

With trade unions threatening “sustained and indefinite” strike action if the Coalition goes ahead with its aims to reform public sector pensions in line with Labour peer Lord Hutton’s recommendations, Lib Dem cabinet ministers have been sticking to a simple message to calm the situation: there has to be reform, but we’re very hapy to engage in constructive negotiation.

Here’s Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable speaking today:


(Video clip also available here.)

His deliberately low-key response to the unions’ invoking of strikes echoes Lib Dem minister Ed Davey’s down-playing of suggestions the Coalition might seek to tighten current strike law legislation:

“There is no compelling case to change the strike laws. We are asking public sector workers to take some very difficult decisions on pensions including changes to payment contributions, a later retirement date and end to final salary schemes. To rush to the statute book simply because they hold a strike ballot would be an over-reaction. What I mean by engaging is talking to the unions, listening to them, and changing policy as appropriate. And we have been engaging at a higher level frequently.

“Yes, we want to persuade them not to go on strike, but simply because workers decide to strike, the idea that we should get even tougher on strike legislation seems to me to not understand where workers are coming from. Bringing in such legislation would be antagonistic and inflammatory and plays into the hands of the militants, rather than engaging with the reasonable moderate trade union leaders.”

Their tone is a little more emollient than that struck by Lib Dem chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander, when he triggered a storm on Friday with his Telegraph article expressing disappointment that “a minority of unions seem hell-bent on premature strike action before these discussions are even complete”. Here’s Danny explaining the Coalition’s pensions reform on BBC News:


(Video clip also available here.)

After recent Coalition climbdowns, most notably on the NHS reforms, the unions may reckon the Government can be forced to re-think its pensions reforms, too — especially in the face of disruptive strikes. But whatever the soothing words of Lib Dems in recent days, this is one area of reform where the government knows it cannot afford (almost literally) to U-turn.