AA strike vote could leave drivers stranded

The AA breakdown service and its private equity owners are braced for the result of a strike ballot on Wednesday that could leave its 15 million customers without roadside assistance for the first time in its 105-year history. The Independent Democratic Union launched a ballot of about 3,000 outside patrol and rescue staff at the AA last month after objecting to management’s plans to cap employee pensions. The patrolmen and women, who include specialist rescue teams such as operators of “floodbusting” Land Rovers, are thought to be particularly aggrieved over the changes, since many have served 20 to 30 years on the road and their retirement pay will be lower than expected. The AA, whose parent company Acromas also owns Saga, the travel group and insurer for the over-50s, employs 7,000 people. Of these, 5,500 are IDU members, although the union is balloting only those staff who work outside. Acromas, formed from a merger in 2007 with Saga, is majority- owned by Permira, CVC and Charterhouse, the private equity groups. Related Links * AA moves up a gear on the road to recovery * AA faces first strike action in 105 years The IDU says that the proposed changes — which include a 2.5 per cent cap on annual increases in pensionable salary, a raised staff contribution and a cut in the maximum annual rise in pensions paid out — are designed to cut the company’s pension liabilities and make it more attractive to outside investors before an eventual flotation. Alistair Maclean, the IDU national secretary, said: “The private equity companies have already made big profits from the merger of the two groups and staff have already taken a lot of pain.” Acromas, which has debts of £6 billion, has denied that it plans to float this year. In July 2008, just before the onset of the credit crisis, Andrew Goodsell, its chief executive, said that he expected to pursue a stock market flotation in “due course”. Edmund King, the AA’s president, said: “This is nothing to do with flotation. The scheme has a £190 million deficit. We are trying to safeguard the future of the scheme by capping it, rather than it being an open cheque.” He added that if the ballot favoured a strike, the company would be ready with a contingency plan. “During the two weeks of snow, for example, we used garage networks to rescue people because our patrol service was not able to cope with the levels of calls.” The GMB union, which says that it represents some AA staff, although it is not recognised by the AA, is also preparing to ballot its members towards the end of this week, after drawing up a full list of those entitled to vote. Paul Maloney, the GMB’s national secretary for AA staff, said: “The changes management are proposing effectively mean that the value of individual pensions will be reduced by anything up to 50 per cent.” The AA’s final-salary scheme was closed to new members in 2005 and new staff have since been offered a career average scheme. Taken from: Timesonline.com