AA patrolmen have voted to stage the first strike in the vehicle breakdown recovery service’s 105-year history, in protest at the company’s plans to restructure its final salary pension scheme.

The Independent Democratic Union said 57 per cent of the ballots received from 87 per cent of its 2,400 AA members by the deadline were in favour of striking.

It said a decision about whether to strike would depend on the company’s response.

The AA said it was “disappointed” and pointed out that it was keeping its final salary pension scheme open, while many similar schemes had been closed. It said “contingency plans would be in place to ensure a good breakdown service for members”.

Three years ago the private equity owners of the AA were dragged into a heated spat with unions about job cuts that ended with buy-out bosses being called before a parliamentary inquiry into their industry.

In advance of the election, the IDU may intend to apply political pressure to the AA and its private equity owners, Permira, CVC and Charterhouse.

The AA has proposed capping pensionable salary increases in its pension scheme at 2.5 per cent, up from its initial offer of a 1 per cent cap.

It also offered to increase its contributions from £13m to £18m to clear a deficit that stood at £190m in November 2009.

The decision to restructure the AA’s defined benefit pension scheme comes after similar schemes have been closed to existing members by some of the UK’s biggest companies, including Barclays, Alliance Boots and Vodafone.

However, unions suspect the AA is trying to cut costs as Acromas, its parent, prepares for a possible initial public offering, which would make it an FTSE 100 company with a value of as much as £10bn.

“There is a cynical view among our guys that this is just a move by private equity to polish the company up a bit before the ‘for sale’ sign goes up,” said Ian Allen, national president of the IDU.

Andrew Strong, AA chief executive, said: “The union are out of touch with the real world on this issue. The AA is bucking the trend by proposing to keep our final salary section and career average sections open when most companies are closing theirs.”

The AA said the IDU was “jumping the gun” by holding a strike ballot before the consultation period ends on April 23.

Permira and CVC bought the AA in 2004 for £1.7bn and cut 3,500 jobs, sparking the union backlash.

In 2007 they merged the AA with Saga, the travel and insurance provider to the over-50s, to form Acromas.

The private equity groups declined to comment.

However, people familiar with the situation denied Acromas was planning a flotation this year.

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Academic research has dismissed the notion that companies are more likely to go bust if they are owned by private equity, writes Martin Arnold.

An industry-sponsored study found failure rates for private equity deals since 2003 no higher than for other companies.

That provides a boost for private equity’s push to persuade regulators that it is not a risky form of ownership, as it wrestles with proposals for a regulatory clampdown on the industry in Brussels and Washington.

A study of 7.8m company accounts filed between 1995 and 2009, for which insolvency occurred at 140,000 companies, found that recovery rates for creditors were twice as high from insolvencies of private equity-owned companies than from others.

The research was carried out by the Credit Management Research Centre at Leeds University Business School, the Centre for Management Buy-out Research at Nottingham University and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Centre at the University of Birmingham Business School.

The study said: “At this juncture, having encompassed a substantial part of the current recessionary period, we do not find support for the view that higher failure rates due to higher leverage are a specific feature of private equity-backed buy-outs”.

Sponsored by the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, it also found that management buy-out deals were less likely to fail when backed by a private equity group.

It said: “Our finding is suggestive of active involvement by PE firms helping portfolio companies deal better and more timely with trading difficulties, particularly in the more recent period leading up to the credit crunch”.

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