There was a point when it looked as if the “winter of discontent” – long predicted by all and sundry – could happen; the one-day strike three weeks ago seemed to augur months of misery as umpteen unions embarked on a season of ill-will towards the government.
Today, however, has seen the big thaw – at least for many of the unions in their negotiations with ministers over public sector pension reform: not for all.
Four different sets of talks have been ongoing.
1] Three unions have been negotiating with the Local Government Association over local government workers’ pensions. An agreement has been reached and will (I’m told) be approved tomorrow by Eric Pickles, communities secretary. It isn’t a full detailed deal, but more a “roadmap” of principles under which talks will continue. Council pension funds are seen as a special case as they are fully funded, unlike central government pension funds.
2] Health. As my colleague Brian Groom reports, some 15 health unions have signed an agreement with the Department of Health. It is a big deal that Unison, the largest, has agreed to take the outline proposals back to its health executive for consideration. One Whitehall source told me this was “tremendously significant“.
3] The education talks are still up in the air after eight hours of lengthy negotiations at the Department for Education. You could see that as a sign that agreement hasn’t been found; but I’m told these talks are “still in the balance” with the government optimistic that a breakthrough will come later tonight.
[UPDATE: The two biggest teaching unions, NASUWT and the NUT, have not signed up - but nor have they rejected the offer outright. Here is our latest story on the negotiations.]
4] That leaves the civil service, where Prospect has come out positively and the FDA is likely to follow suit (despite there being no new money on the table). It is the PCS, led by firebrand Mark Serwotka (pictured), which has refused to accept the offer. That could mean more industrial action ahead from the union, which has a large membership; but it’s not the all-out war which some ministers and officials had feared. (Incidentally the only union to reject the health agreement was – as of this afternoon – Unite; one theory is that this reflects brotherly solidarity ahead of a Unite-PCS merger.)
The strategy from ministers now seems to be divide and rule; with threats of banning the PCS from any future pension negotiations. Whether that means the changes will be imposed on the union unilaterally remains to be seen.