A strike by thousands of workers at Unilever (which manufactures well-known food products including Marmite and other household goods) could be the first major set-piece pensions battle in the private sector, after Unite, GMB and USDAW all returned massive majorities for strike action.
Workers are attempting to prevent the abolition of their final-salary pension schemes, for both new and existing members. Existing scheme members will retain accrued benefits, but will not receive their full final-salary pensions and will instead be transferred onto career-average pensions on 1 January 2012. This could mean enormous losses for many workers; according to Unite, one member has already calculated that it represents a loss of £150,000 if he lives for just 15 years after retirement!
A company statement said: “Our pensions arrangements in the UK have to reflect today’s realities if they are going to be sustainable into the future and this means making tough choices, including an acceptance that final salary pensions are no longer a viable option for the company.”
The GMB’s Allan Black said: “This strike vote demonstrates that pensions are not just a matter of concern for public sector workers as the concerns are shared by workers in the private sector too. The vote also shows that ordinary workers will not stand idly by to watch profitable employers like Unilever jumping on the pension’s robbery bandwagon.”
While no strike dates have been formally announced yet, union officials will meet in the next few days to draw up a programme of action, with the GMB guaranteeing a first strike “before Christmas”.
Around 2,500 of Unilever’s 7,000 UK workforce were balloted. There are currently 5,000 members of the company’s pension scheme.