Strikes loom as Britain's trade unions hold annual congress

12th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Possible mass strikes by public sector workers in protest at looming government cuts will be high on the agenda when Britain's trade unions gather for their annual congress from Monday.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is meeting for the first time since Conservative David Cameron's coalition government took power in May.

The conference, in Manchester, northwest England, will generate particular controversy this year because the government is pushing through major cuts to tackle Britain's record deficit.

Some 600,000 public sector jobs could eventually be cut and ministers have warned government departments to prepare reductions of up to 40 percent.

Ministers will give full details on how they intend to reduce borrowing -- forecast to hit 149 billion pounds (180 billion euros, 230 billion dollars) in the year to March 2011 -- in a spending review on October 20.

The situation threatens a return to the tensions of the 1970s and 1980s when another Tory premier, Margaret Thatcher, drew intense hostility from unions as they staged a wave of strikes against a backdrop of her free market reforms.

Britain's trade unions are major donors to the opposition Labour party, which elects a new leader on September 25, and have a history of clashing with the Conservatives.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, the trade union umbrella group with the same name as the congress, has warned of "difficult disputes" ahead as unions representing public sector and private sector workers resist the cuts.

"We have a pretty volatile cocktail of issues, such as the public sector pay freeze, threats of further privatisation, re-structuring of public services and major worries about security of pensions," Barber said ahead of the event.

"It is a pretty potent mixture and there could be some difficult disputes as a result."

A rally and lobby of parliament is already planned for October 19, the day before the spending review, and many unions are urging British support for a Europe-wide day of action against state austerity measures on September 29.

Thousands of activists are expected at the TUC from Monday to Thursday when the trade union movement's plans for the coming year are decided.

The agenda contains a string of motions condemning the government's budgetary plans and urging action.

Around seven million people in Britain belong to a trade union, under a quarter of the total workforce of 29 million.

If they do go on strike, they could struggle to get much support from the British public or limit the cuts, experts say.

Defending the government's decisions in a speech last week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, accepted that they would prove "difficult, painful or unpopular".

"I am under no illusions about the significant political risks both parties in the coalition are now taking by facing up to these difficult decisions in government," he said.

But Clegg stressed the cuts would not begin until next April and would happen over four years.

With Britain facing what the deputy premier called a "choppy and uneven" recovery, many Britons working in the private sector still worry about their own jobs and feel little sympathy for state employees.

This is partly because of a common perception that public sector workers have "wonderful salaries, gold-plated pensions" funded by private sector taxes, said Pete Dorey of Cardiff University, who has done extensive research on trade unionism.

"If the public sector goes on strike, they're going to get absolutely no sympathy whatsoever," he told AFP.

Dorey also predicted that many public sector workers could be so worried about their jobs that the strikes may not be as widespread as some commentators have forecast.

"I think there will be a lot of anger and resentment by public sector workers but there might be a lot of resignation that the government isn't really going to listen anyway," he said.

"What you might well find is a lot of workers are so anxious about their jobs, they keep their head down and keep out of trouble."

© 2010 AFP

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