Unions threaten mass strikes over spending cuts

TUC backs co-ordinated action including walkouts and protests targeted at vulnerable MPs, to avert ‘more brutish’ society

Unions today approved the use of widespread, joint industrial action to oppose government cuts, to be preceded by a campaign to force the coalition into a U-turn through multiple protests in areas where coalition MPs are most vulnerable.

The government said it wanted to form a “genuine partnership” with the unions, and union officials confirmed they would remain in discussions with ministers while opposing the coalition’s economic strategy.

But on the platform at the Trades Union Congress annual meeting in Manchester, union leaders issued a flood of strike rhetoric, condemning the coalition’s plans to reduce public spending to cut the deficit rapidly and claiming it would lead to a “darker, more brutish” society.

The TUC agreed a motion which will see it launch an intense programme of lobbying MPs in the coalition while reserving the right to take “co-ordinated” strike action, which could include general strikes once the cuts start to bite in the new year.

The action plan will include a Westminster rally on the eve of the comprehensive spending review in October, a national demonstration in March and a co-ordinated campaign of industrial action after that.

The TUC is attempting to delay any strike action until the spring, when it believes it will get more public support as people start to feel the impact of the cuts. One senior union official said: “It’s not a question of if, but when.”

That strategy was immediately tested when the biggest local authority in the country, Birmingham city council, revealed it had written to its 26,000 non-school staff threatening them with redundancy if they did not accept new employment terms. The council said it had to save £330m but unions said they would resist the move.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said: “Ministers must understand this: what they take apart now could take generations to rebuild. Decent public services are the glue that holds a civilised society together, and we diminish them at our peril. Cut services, put jobs at peril, and increase inequality – that is the way to make Britain a darker, brutish, more frightening place. And let no one doubt that unions and the TUC will protect and defend dedicated public service workers.”

Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, who is on the more militant wing of the union movement, called for civil disobedience to defend public services and told the TUC conference: “We lie down or stand up and fight.”

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said that “when the call was there”, they would move to “co-ordinate industrial action to defend all we hold dear, all that past generations have fought for”.

With the unions separately issuing verbal threats, the government attempted to seize the moral high ground by offering an olive branch. The Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, said: “We are not going back to the days where there was a complete stand-off between the trade unions and the government. Those days are gone.”

Downing Street emphasised the desire of the government to work with the unions, and denied it had any plans to amend trade union laws.

“We want there to be a genuine partnership with the trade unions,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said. “We need to deal with the deficit, we want to work with everyone in tackling that.”

Addressing the TUC, Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, offered the unions the party’s support. “We will not be silenced by the right wing characterising protest as undemocratic,” she said. “Trade unionists have the democratic rights to protest. We will not be deterred by suggestions that this is illegitimate – it is perfectly within the law.

“We will not be cowed by accusations that this is irresponsible and putting services at risk – the very opposite is true.”

The threat to jobs in Birmingham drew sharp criticism from unions. Stephen Hughes, the chief executive of the authority, which is run by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration, sent letters to the entire non-schools staff – covering everyone from street sweepers to clerks, carers, and cleaners – warning that they would receive new contracts imposing cuts in pay and conditions.

Failure to accept the new deals would result in dismissal from the council with three months’ pay.

The GMB’s Birmingham and West Midlands regional officer, Joe Morgan, said unions representing workers at the council would co-operate in their response to the letter, with a mass meeting already organised for next week.

“The workers have been told that if they don’t accept new contracts they will be dismissed and re-engaged on worse conditions,” said Morgan. “The council’s chief executive is acting like a school bully by saying that workers have to accept this or they will be sacked without compensation. Our members are in shock and are up in arms.”

The unions hope to emulate the success they believe the education unions have had in opposing both the cuts to the school building programme and the government’s academies programme.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, had suggested there would be hundreds of new academies and free schools by this September, but education unions have claimed they prevented the widespread conversion by working with local parent groups to oppose them.

Coalition MPs also came under intense pressure in their constituencies when 675 school rebuilding programmes were cancelled. The unions now want to form local campaigns against cuts in social services, children’s centres and health provision to put maximum pressure on MPs.

Union leaders believe that once the cuts start to really bite in the spring, when the spending review decisions start to take effect, the public will back their campaigns and support industrial action where necessary.