Strikes over pensions
Demonstrators march past the Houses of Parliament during a protest over pension reforms in London on June 30. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

Two million public sector workers are set to walk out on November 30, in some of the biggest strikes Britain has ever seen.

On this "Day of Action," as the Trade Union Congress, or TUC, calls it, these workers are bringing a pensions row with the government to its peak. The government is seeking to reform public sector pensions and the unions are unhappy with the changes being proposed.

There have been on-going negotiations between unions and the Treasury, in a bid to reach agreement and avert any strikes. No deal has been made and, despite talks continuing, the unions have decided it is time to take industrial action.

As Britain prepares itself for November 30 and the fallout, including massive delays at airports and swathes of school closures, IBTimes UK goes to the heart of the dispute.

What do public sector pensions look like, and what exactly does the government want to do to them?

How Public Sector Pensions Currently Look

For each section of the public sector, the pension scheme is slightly different.

In local government, the accrual rate -- essentially interest -- is 1/60 annually, and the scheme is linked with an employee's final salary. Retirement age is 65 and average employee contribution is 6.3 percent, against an average employer -- the taxpayer -- contribution of 13.3 percent.

For the NHS, retirement is also at 65 with an accrual rate of 1/60, linked to final salary.

GPs have their own pension scheme within the NHS, based on average salary - though the accrual rate is 1.87 per cent annually.

Employers pay 14 percent contributions, while employee contributions vary from 5 percent -- 8.5 percent, based on earnings.

Teachers have a final salary scheme with pensions based on two-thirds of their final salary, retirement age of 65, and an accrual rate of 1/60.

Employees pay 6.4 percent in, while employers stump-up 14.1 percent.

Civil servants are offered two different schemes. One's a career average pension with a retirement age of 65 (Nuvos), the other's a final salary scheme with retirement at 60 (Premium).

Premium gives two-thirds final salary as pension, with 1/60 accrual rates.

Average employer contributions are 21.3 per cent, with employees contributing 3.5 per cent.

For those working in universities, there's a final salary scheme of half your final salary, with an accrual rate of 1/80, and retirement age of 65.

Employers contribute 16 percent, employees 6.35 percent.

For the police, they receive two-thirds final salary, which can be paid at 50 after 30 years of service, though normal pension age is 55.

In the first 20 years, there's a 1/60 accrual rate, then 2/60 in the last decade of service, to finally giving 40/60 at 30 years.

Employees pay between 9.5-11 percent, with 24.2 percent paid by employers.

For firefighters, the length of service is 40 years, with an accrual rate of 1/60 and a retirement age of 60.

Employer contributions are 11.8 per cent, while employees pay 8.5 per cent.

What the Government is Offering

The government says it needs to reform public sector pensions to help bring down the budget deficit and to make them "fairer" for the taxpayers.

Under pressure from unions, they've revised their changes to public pensions a couple of times. As it stands with their current offer -- which they say they'll withdraw at the end of the year if unions do not accept it -- they're offering a standard accrual rate of 1/60.

The retirement age will go up, from 65 for men and 60 for women to 66 for both, over time. Eventually in the next 40 years retirement age will reach 68.

New pension contribution arrangements are also offered for some sections of the public sector.

These are:

NHS: 12.1 percent employer, 9.8 percent employee

Civil Service: 16.9 percent employer, 5.6 percent employee

Teachers: 12.1 percent employer, 9.6 percent employee

Local Government: 10.9 percent employer, 9.6 percent employee

The government's proposals will come into effect in 2015, and they have said that anyone within ten years of their retirement on April 1, 2012, will not be affected by the changes.

Balancing the 'Fairness': Taxpayers v Public Pensions

Underneath the government's public sector pensions reforms is a political philosophy based on financial prudence. They say public sector pensions are generous to the point of being unfair on British taxpayers.

Another of their arguments is that the private sector doesn't enjoy pensions of the same size, so why should they fund public sector pensions, through their taxes, for pensions much better than their own?

"From the beginning we have been absolutely committed to engaging with the unions on making the necessary reforms to public service pensions," said Francis Maude, Cabinet Office Minister. "We have listened to the concerns of public service workers and responded. It is time now for the unions to respond in a responsible manner and remember that industrial action will cause unnecessary disruption to small businesses and working people up and down the country who themselves do not have access to such generous pensions schemes."

Unions say that bad pensions in the private sector does not mean there should be bad pensions in the public sector. Indeed they argue that everyone should be campaigning for better pensions, regardless of whether they work in the public or private sector.

The unions also argue that public servants do vital work for the British people and should be justly rewarded for that.

"None of the public servants we represent want to strike, but they are being forced into it by a government determined to raid their pensions to pay off a deficit caused by greed and recklessness in the financial sector, and by cuts to their pay and jobs," said a spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services union, or PCS. "Instead of scratching round trying to cover the borders with under-trained staff without the proper security clearance, ministers should talk to us about the key issues affecting millions of public sector workers."