Why do some workforces accept DB pension closure and some strike?

In the UK, defined benefit schemes have moved from closing to new hires to closing for future accrual (pension build-up) for all members.

This has resulted in a number of strikes , most recently the AA workforce has committed itself to industrial action for the first time in 108 years.

By contrast, other organisations, who understandably are keeping their heads down, have managed to convince their workforces that switching from DB to DC accrual is in the long-term interests of the workforce and have managed the transition without industrial unrest.

The focus of corporate pension schemes has switched from wealth accumulation to liability management. Investment policies now target the solvency of the scheme and benchmark performance on the percentage of liabilities covered by assets. Sophisticated techniques have evolved to immunize schemes from the impact of increasing member longevity and interest rate and inflation rate fluctuations.

Despite these efforts, companies have been forced to divert huge sums into these DB schemes to shore up their finances, money that has been diverted from investment in the future of its workforce training, job creation and job retention.

I have recently had experience of seeing a large company explain to its workforce through a program of seminars, conference calls and other direct communications, how the company’s DB plan was effecting the share price , growth prospects and its capacity to remain competitive.  The company managed to explain quite complex economic issues to their staff in a way that I had not thought possible.

The communications program convinced me that we have greatly underestimated the capacity of non pension people to understand how pensions work.

What struck me most was that the company kicked off discussions by explicitly stating that the alternative pension arrangement that had been put in place would not be as good as the DB plan the members enjoyed. This extremely honest statement seemed to do two things

  1. It generated a degree of trust between the company and the workforce
  2. It intellectually engaged members

Once trust and engagement had been achieved, the company was able to explain the problems that the DB plan was creating. The company could explain complex issues such as the volatility of liabilities and the impact on the company’s overall strategy; people attending the events (and attendance rates grew as the roadshow ran its course), asked questions and got honest answers.

The demographics of the organisation I observed seemed pretty typical of most large UK workforces, a mix of races, classes and economic groups.

The members I spoke to after these events were not happy but at least they understood the corporate dilemma. It seems that over time they have reached a consensus that it is in their long-term collective  interest to accept the proposed changes and move on without unrest.


A happy secondary consequence of a DB based education program 

Helping members to understand the management of their DB plans has a two-fold benefit. It creates the trust and engagement necessary for change and it provides the educational platform necessary for members to properly manage their pension affairs in a DC environment. Perhaps we have got things the wrong way round, perhaps we need to get people interested in what they have got (a DB promise) before we talk about what they might get (a money purchase benefit).

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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5 Responses to Why do some workforces accept DB pension closure and some strike?

  1. We have been involved in a lot of DB/DC transition exercises and I absolutely agree that communication is the key factor in their success.

    What we find is that sometimes this can be the first occasion that the workforce has been genuinely engaged with by the employer in relation to their pension scheme and the employees value the time and effort put into explaining the issues to them.

  2. henry tapper says:


    I am sure you are right, advisers have to take the lead on this – very few corporate sponsors have suffecient confidence to go their workforce and explain these issues without help.

    Ironically, in the instance I mention in this blog, the advisers were against adopting what they considered the “brutal” approach used by the employer.

    The Pension Manager I spoke to made a very good point

    “At a time when we are expecting members of our DC plan to actively engage withpension management, we have been giving them the impression that the DB plan is far too difficult for them to be bothered with”

  3. Of course people react badly if they feel that their employers are making decisions that affect their future and imply that the staff are unable to understand. Staff generally want the financial future of the employer to be sound, and will respond well to honest communication. Realistic levels of DC contributions can still produce realistic pensions so the employers do not have an entirely negative message, but if the aims are both risk management and cost reduction it’s best to say so truthfully.

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