London: Tata Steel workers in Britain today voted in favour of a strike against the firm over a pension row, which the company termed as "disappointing".
The Community union announced the 9-1 result of a ballot of nearly 6,000 workers today, which marks an 88 per cent vote in favour of the proposed strike. The union pledged "maximum disruption to the company and minimum pain for our members" in determining the final nature of its protest.
"The result of pension ballots announced earlier today is disappointing given the company is proposing to continue providing employees with highly attractive and competitive pensions," a Tata Steel spokesperson said. Despite most final salary pension schemes have been closed, the firm originally proposed to maintain final salary pension provision but it was rejected by the unions, he added.
"The shortfall of up to 2 billion pounds (about USD 3.1 billion) faced by the pension scheme is not the fault of the company or its employees, but it can only be addressed if the company and its employees work together," he said. The company has already stated to both the trade unionsand employees, in response to the feedback received through the consultation process, that it intends to mitigate the impact of the proposed changes, the spokesperson added.
"We remain hopeful that employees will see that these proposals and the mitigations represent the most fair and balanced way of dealing with the deficit. "We also remain hopeful that employees will avoid taking any action that damages our objective of building a successful and sustainable UK business capable of supporting a secure pension scheme," he said.
Community Union General Secretary and chair of the National Steel Trade Union Coordinating Committee Roy Rickhuss said: "We stand on the brink of the first national strike in the steel industry for over 30 years.
"This is not where we wanted to be but Tata now has an opportunity to end this dispute by removing the threat of scheme closure and discussing alternative measures to resolve the challenges faced by the scheme, something the unions have been prepared to do since November last year." Throughout the discussions, the company said it needed to address a deficit of just under 1 billion pounds and the unions were prepared to look at measures that would have wiped that out, without closing the scheme, he added.
"Community's members at Tata Steel have now spoken loud and clear. Steelworkers are determined to stand up to Tata. They have not been fooled by the company's propaganda. They have voted overwhelmingly for their pensions, their families and their futures," Rickhuss said. Trade union members of Community, UCATT, GMB and Unite unions had been voting on whether to protest the company¿s changes to its pensions plan since early this month.
The average turnout of Community's members across UK sites was over 76 per cent and as high as 84 per cent at Tata Steel¿s works at Port Talbot in Wales, where 96 per cent of members voted for strike action. Results of ballots by GMB and UCATT members at Tata Steel are also expected today. The ballot of Unite members closes on next Friday. The vote result came after the chief executive of Tata Steel's European operations issued an open letter to staff in the UK urging support for a controversial new pension scheme.
Karl Koehler's letter accepting "genuine concerns" over the proposed changes warned that the pension scheme was heading for a huge shortfall of 2 billion pounds unless changes were made. "The past few years have seen the UK ¿ and most of the world ¿ go through the worst financial crisis for generations. One of the consequences has been record low interest rates. "And like savings in the bank, our pension scheme's assets have not been growing fast enough to keep up with increases in the expected cost of providing benefits.
The result has been a huge shortfall of up to 2 billion pounds which is clearly not sustainable. "I want to assure you that I do appreciate there are genuine concerns and we have made clear to the trade unions that we are looking at ways of lessening the impact of these issues. Indeed, we will be writing to our UK colleagues again within the next few weeks following the end of the consultation to respond to these issues," he added.
The industrial action ballot of nearly 17,000 steel workers in total was sought over a dispute around Tata Steel's proposal to replace the existing British Steel Pension Scheme (BSPS) with a "money purchase" pension scheme in which employees, the government and the employer will make definite contributions. It would also hike the retirement age from 60 to 65.
The unions have rejected it on the ground that it would increase the financial burden on the employees. GMB National Officer Dave Hulse said: "GMB members have sent a clear message to the company that they will not sit back and let them take away their hard earned pensions.
The firm needs to take the threat away of closing the final salary scheme and comeback around the table to have meaningful negotiation before this is taken out of their hands," he said. "Our members will take whatever action is needed to keep the scheme open. We have lost faith in the company and its leadership and believe the company are putting the business at serious risk," Hulse said.
Tata Steel now has an opportunity of putting things right by sitting down with the steel committee and having meaningful discussions that is acceptable to all, he added. UCATT in a statement said its "members employed by Tata Steel have voted overwhelmingly for strike action over the company's plans to close the BSPS."