The Trades Union Congress is expected to overwhelmingly back a composite motion today to ‘support and co-ordinate campaigning and joint industrial action’ at a national and local level in response to proposed public sector budget cuts.
Union leaders warned the Financial Times that public sector pensions are shaping up to be the most “combustible” issue, as they prepare to mobilise public opinion behind a campaign of resistance to the coalition government’s austerity agenda.
As hundreds of trade unionists gathered in Manchester, Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, was preparing to evoke the spirit of the poll tax protests at the opening of the union umbrella organisation’s conference.
Resistance is expected to begin next month on the eve of Chancellor George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review and come to a head in spring next year as the impact of the cuts starts to be felt.
But there are divisions over tactics. Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, called for a campaign of civil disobedience to fight spending cuts.
“Maybe we need Batman climbing up 10 Downing Street, Spider Man on Buckingham Palace as part of peaceful demonstrations of civil disobedience. This is an opportunity for the entire trade union movement to come together and mobilise support,” he said last night.
Unions should come together to organise the protest or risk being picked off one at a time, he added.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said that industrial action was inevitable, adding that unless unions fought back, the future would be “bleak”.
“Over 100,000 civil service jobs have been cut over the past six years and we are now being hit by closures and cuts even as the sword of chancellor George Osborne hangs in the air. We ain’t seen nothing yet. People are very worried and demoralised and are just waiting for things to get worse,” he said.
But Les Bayliss, who hopes to become general secretary of Unite, warned that public sector strikes would only deprive vulnerable people of the services they needed and would be counter-productive, turning unions into the “villains of the piece”.
“The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy. The Tories will hit us with even more restrictive laws and working people will look away in disgust,” he said.
The GMB union, meanwhile, published research indicating that jobs losses of nearly 150,000 that had already been announced among public authorities were “just the top of the iceberg”.
A survey of the union’s officers to establish the number of jobs they were defending across the country indicated that 19,198 jobs were at risk in Scotland, 8,680 in the south east, 8,604 in the West Midlands and 8.176 in the south west. NHS Trusts are planning 36,000 job cuts and the courts 15,000.
The coalition government has not confirmed whether either the Chancellor or Prime Minister David Cameron will meet union leaders before October’s spending review announcement. But a leaked memo written by the Chancellor, which outlined plans to cut the employment and support allowance that is to replace incapacity benefit for the sick and disabled by more than £2.5 billion a year, has thrown it on the defensive.