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Colman's staff keen on Unilever pensions protest

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Media captionWorkers protest against proposed pension changes

As staff arrive at the Colman's plant in Norwich, they are met by the familiar bull's head logo at the entrance.

But these workers are angry. The red rag comes in the form of the planned closure of their final-salary pension by Colman's owners, the consumer goods giant Unilever.

The proposed closure of the scheme - which has about 5,000 active members - to existing staff prompted a walkout by Unilever employees, the first national strike in its history.

The company says that the scheme's costs are rising because people are living longer and investment returns have proved volatile.

But this argument has fallen flat with staff at 12 Unilever sites across the UK who have started a series of rolling strikes as the dispute escalates.

Their plight will be closely watched by employees at businesses across the country, as they too face a changing pensions landscape.

'Breaking point'

Alison Bridge, 43, met her husband Colin at the Colman's plant 20 years ago, when both worked on the production line.

Image caption Alison Bridge says that she was initially unclear what the pension changes meant for her

"I wondered who that handsome chap was," says Mrs Bridge, who now drives forklift trucks in the culinary department.

With 55 years' service between them, the couple are as married to the Norwich plant as they are to each other.

But, like many other long-servers on the picket line, they feel let down by the company's decision to cut back their pension entitlement.

"It used to be something to work at Colman's," says Mrs Bridge. "There is still that pride, but we are at breaking point."

She admits that when the plan to replace the final-salary pension scheme with one based on average pay over her career was announced, she took relatively little notice.

But, as with many other striking workers, the full effects of that change to her finances became clear when she entered her details into a computer modelling programme circulated by the company.

Mrs Bridge, who earns about £25,000 a year, says that her and her husband's combined pension income will fall by up to £8,000 a year.

"I was shocked when I actually saw the figures. Unilever is a big company - if it was a little one, we might understand a little more," she says, as she holds a placard in protest.

'Competitive'

In December, 2,500 Unilever workers took part in a strike over the pension changes.

Now, despite a delay in the planned closure of the final-salary scheme to July, staff are back out on a rolling programme of walkouts.

This is affecting sites at Port Sunlight on the Wirral, Warrington, Leeds, Gloucester, Trafford Park in Manchester, Purfleet in Essex and Ewloe in north Wales, as well as Norwich.

Production of household brands such as Marmite, PG Tips, Dove soap, Pot Noodle, Persil, Lynx, Wall's ice cream and Hellmann's Mayonnaise is being affected, according to unions.

The company accuses the unions of walking out of talks, and says that it has enhanced an "exceptionally competitive" pension offer.

"We believe the provision of final-salary pensions is a broken model which is no longer appropriate for Unilever," it says in a statement.

"It is our responsibility to protect the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of our business, and to do so is in the best interests of our people."

This has been done in a way that means 90% of affected UK employees will retain 80% or more of the pension they would previously have expected, it says.

Pensions holiday

But this is not enough for those on the picket line at Norwich.

Image caption Staff were keen to make their views heard outside the Colman's plant in Norwich

They accuse Unilever of soiling the legacy of Colman's, the mustard manufacturer that is the oldest brand under the Unilever umbrella.

The Colman family were pioneers in social welfare, opening a school for employees' children in 1857 and taking on a nurse, seven years later, to help sick members of staff.

Now, strikers say, Unilever has instead embarked on a withdrawal of staff benefits.

"We are just fighting for what is ours," says Michael Pye, 49, who has stood at the production line on eight-hour shifts for 27 years.

He is particularly annoyed that the scheme is being shut, after being so much in surplus in the 1980s that a pensions holiday was invoked.

Unsustainable

Disgruntlement on the picket line is easy to find, but suggestions of solutions are less forthcoming.

Many companies believe that final-salary pension schemes are unsustainable and are too large a drain on costs. The National Association of Pension Funds says almost a quarter of such schemes are now shut to both new and existing members, compared with just 3% of them in 2008.

Workers say they signed up for a pension deal and have showed loyalty to their employers in return, so they expect that entitlement to be honoured.

Union representative Lou Stopher, 57, who has worked at the Norwich plant for 29 years, admits that there are no easy answers in the complex pensions system.

He was involved in the early talks and says that both sides should get back around a table.

"There is middle ground to be had in any negotiations," he says.

On the picket line there is some, but not unanimous, support for the public sector workers facing their own battle over the future of their pensions.

The conundrum, and the industrial action that it has created, have been similar across the public and private sectors.

Workers may have a long wait to discover whether a mirror can be held up to the eventual settlement.

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