About 280,000 civil servants will be balloted on strike action today as the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union protests against job losses and outsourcing.
Organisers say that if the vote goes in favour of a 24-hour walkout across 200 government agencies on January 31st, it could mark the start of the biggest period of industrial action in the UK for 20 years.
However, the Cabinet Office said strike action was unnecessary, arguing although there were job losses in the civil service, these were needed to modernise the system and would be carried out with as few compulsory redundancies as possible.
The government wants to cut 100,000 civil service jobs as part of a department-wide efficiency drive, and today's ballot is in protest to this move, as well as what PCS claims are attempts to drive down pay and privatise increasing numbers of services.
The timing of the strike is intended to coincide with the deadline for self-assessment tax returns at the end of this month - among the main concerns of the union is a new plan to cut a further 12,500 jobs at the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said the government had failed to provide any guarantees on compulsory redundancies, despite similar deals in the private sector, and he warned: "Job cuts are damaging services and are completely unnecessary.
"Added to which, you have privatisation and outsourcing in departments such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD), where there appears to be little thought for the impact on service delivery or whether it represents value for the taxpayer."
He also added that morale among civil servants and those working in the public sector had "plummeted" because of chancellor Gordon Brown's determination to hold down pay increases in line with the government's inflation target of two per cent.
However, in a letter to staff this morning, cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell warned industrial action would damage "both the services we provide to the public. . . and our reputation as civil servants" and would not resolve any of the main issues.
"We must be realistic; public sector resources are limited and that means we have to adapt, just like every other organisation, public or private, in this country," he wrote.
He insisted that during a time when 45,000 posts have been cut and 10,000 relocated, the government had only had to announce 35 compulsory redundancies.
Speaking on Today, Cabinet Office minister Pat McFadden stressed there was "absolutely no need" for strike action.
"I don't think many people in the general public looking at the overall package that civil servants enjoy in terms of pay, holiday entitlement and pension entitlement would conclude that this was a group of staff that was getting a particularly bad deal," he said.