British unions to vote on strikes against austerity cuts

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Britain's trade unions prepared to vote on whether to back a coordinated wave of strikes against deep government austerity cuts as their annual congress kicked off Monday.

This year's Trades Union Congress (TUC) -- dubbed "the most important for a generation" by one union boss -- is likely to be peppered with angry attacks on Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's government from public sector workers worried about their jobs.

In his opening address, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was to describe as a "demolition government" Cameron's coalition with the Liberal Democrats which took power in May.

"Now is the time for us to build a diverse, dynamic and progressive alliance for change," he was to say, according to pre-released extracts.

"This year's election did not give anybody a clear mandate to start slashing public spending. What we've now got is not just a coalition government, but a demolition government."

The congress will vote on motions including one which proposes to "support and coordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action... in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services."

But there are some differences over what the unions' tactics should be in fighting the cuts, full details of which will be revealed by Cameron's coalition in October.

While moderates like Barber are playing down the prospect of strikes and calling for unions to join with the public to propose alternatives to cuts, other more radical figures propose cross-sector, coordinated strike action.

Other European countries like France and Greece have recently been hit by a wave of strikes in protest at government austerity measures, although coordinated action in Britain is rare, in part due to tighter union laws.

Mark Serwotka, head of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents over 300,000 people, on Sunday predicted a "campaign of resistance the like of which has not been seen for decades."

"I personally think industrial action is inevitable on a large scale unless the government changes direction," he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Bob Crow of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) which represents nearly 80,000 people, urged a peaceful campaign of "civil disobedience".

This could even involve activists dressed as "Batman climbing up Number 10 (Downing Street) to Spiderman going up Buckingham Palace," said Crow, whose union brought London to a standstill last week with a 24-hour strike on Underground trains.

However, there have been calls for caution from some trade unionists.

Les Bayliss, a candidate to become leader of the biggest trade union, Unite, said strikes risked making trade unions "the villains of the piece" in the eyes of the public, who could be deprived of key services like health and education.

"The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy," he said. "The Tories will hit us with even more restrictive laws and working people will look away in disgust."

Unions say there have already been some 150,000 job losses announced in the public sector as part of the government's austerity measures.

A total of 600,000 public sector jobs could eventually go 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 cuts will be implemented from April next year.

© 2010 AFP

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