The local government pensions strike provided the perfect backdrop for a fiery debate at the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) annual conference in Brighton last week.
Sir Digby Jones, current director-general of the CBI, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, and Paul Kearns, director of HR consultancy PWL, slugged it out over the motion ‘Trade unions are no longer relevant in the modern workplace’.
Jones used the pensions strike as the basis of his argument, claiming that the decision to walk out highlighted union disregard of economic imperatives.
“If you’re 25 today working in the public sector and you want to retire at 60 on full pay – sorry, the nation simply can’t afford it,” he said. “But you get the unions which, instead of offering alternatives, try to bring the country to its knees.”
Serwotka hit back, insisting that local government employees needed to stand up to the changes being made to their scheme.
“It is to the unions’ credit that they are standing up for members, whose pensions promises have been wiped out,” he said. “We are not talking big figures here – the average local government pension is 3,000 a year. I don’t believe that the fourth richest country in the world cannot afford decent pensions.”
Claim and counter-claim continued, with Serwotka referring to a catalogue of bad practice in Whitehall, such as the Department for Work and Pensions dismissing 67 workers a month on the basis of sickness absence.
Jones insisted that this focus on the employee rather than the public was symptomatic of the failure of unions to engage.
Kearns warned that an unwillingness by both sides to get involved in constructive debate meant arguments would never be resolved.
“We all know how bad management can be, but until the unions can think of a different approach, we are not going to get anywhere,” he said.
“And it is the same at the CBI – I am not convinced anyone there understands HR strategy,” he added.
For more analysis from the PPMA conference, see next week’s Personnel Today