The Government's efforts to raise the retirement age of public sector workers have put it on collision course with 13 unions representing over three million workers in the NHS, local government, the civil service, education, the fire service and other parts of the public sector.
At the Trades Union Congress in Brighton yesterday their leaders pledged a joint campaign against Government plans to push the public sector beyond 60. Dave Prentis, leader of Unison, declared that the unions were united and prepared to strike.
Before the General Election the Government abandoned a proposal to raise the pension age for civil servants to 60 to 65 after vague strike threats.
But yesterday Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson, who is leading Government efforts to resolve the row - and himself a former union leader - warned that the dilemma still remains because people are living much longer than in the past.
"Whilst we do want to change the retirement at 60 ethos, this is in the context of preserving high quality, defined benefit, index-linked pension schemes," he told the Congress
" We want to to make improvements to other elements of the schemes and introduce arrangements which give individuals a choice about when they retire, be it aged 60 or 65, or later."
He received a pointedly lukewarm reception, despite a promise of negotiations.
Earlier Adair Turner, the one-time director general of the CBI who is due to deliver a report on the future of pensions in late November, told the TUC that the case is not clear-cut for compulsory contributions - which the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has made the centrepiece of his campaign.
Not all employees want to be compelled to put money aside for their pensions, and if, as the TUC proposes all employers are required to do so, their contributions will come at the expense of cash wages.
In Australia compulsory savings are accompanied by high management charges, Mr Turner added.
"It is very difficult for the financial services industry to sell pensions to people of average earnings or below at annual management charges sufficiently high enough for them to make a profit but sufficiently low enough to represent good value for money for the person saving," he warned.
Mr Prentis said the Government had underestimated the anger of workers and had failed to understand the outrage they felt which had been made worse by politicians and company directors receiving huge increases in their own pensions. "We are stronger and more united than ever before and we will take strike action to defend our pensions," he insisted.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said he had no doubt that civil servants would vote to strike, "in their tens of thousands", if a deal was not reached.
"People feel that the Government is playing around with their future," he said.
Beverly Malone, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, delivered the same message: "The Government's work until you drop plan will mean that recruitment and retention levels will collapse, the work demands placed on nurses will rocket and patient care will suffer."
But the CBI urged the unions to join the "real world".
Director general Sir Digby Jones said: "With people living longer and public finances under increasing pressure, taxpayers are not prepared to foot an open-ended bill. If public sector pensions are to be affordable there can be no sacred cows."