London, Apr 19: British rail unions warned today that they would ballot tens of thousands of workers on possible strike action across the whole UK network unless they can reach agreement with employers in a row over pensions.
The unions have given train operating companies and infrastructure firms until April 28 to agree to their demands or risk what they said would be the first industry-wide shutdown of the rail system since the General Strike of 1926.
They want employers to agree to keeping the Railways Pension Scheme (RPS) open to all employees, to a cap on workers' contributions at 10.6 percent, and to maintaining benefits at current levels.
The RMT, ASLEF, the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA) and engineering union CSEU argue that unless agreement is reached, workers will face ''unacceptably high'' hikes in their pension contributions.
''We have written to every employer in the RPS, seeking an unconditional undertaking on our four key demands, and if that is not received by 4 p.m. on April 28 we will be in dispute and the next step will be ballots for strike action,'' said RMT General Secretary Bob Crow.
The unions blame rail privatisation for a complex pensions scheme with about 100 sections and are asking for the system to be streamlined.
Crow said they would be meeting Transport Minister Derek Twigg next week to express their views.
Network Rail, which runs Britain's tracks and stations, said it was committed to the RPS and would be seeking talks with the unions ''We are dismayed by the actions of the RMT in threatening industrial action -- unfairly using rail passengers and our employees as pawns in this political campaign,'' a spokeswoman said.
''Network Rail's pension scheme is a sound and generous one, and over the last three years we have worked with our employees and the unions to increase the scheme's funding levels, and this has proved to be effective,'' she added.
The unions are holding a series of mass meetings around the country beginning in Manchester today.