British unions vote for strikes against austerity cuts

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Britain's trade unions voted overwhelmingly to back rare coordinated strikes as they were urged to "stand up and fight" government austerity cuts at their congress Monday.

The opening session of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was dominated by angry attacks on Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government, which took power in May and plans deep public sector cuts to tackle a record deficit.

Ministers were accused of "taking a chainsaw to public services" and being part of a "demolition government" as delegates backed joint industrial action and a national campaign to make the case against cuts.

Bob Crow, the firebrand leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) which represents around 80,000 people, spoke in favour of the move, saying the unions would be "fools not to call major action."

"If we stand together, we fight and win and if we don't fight and we become divided, we lose," he told the audience in Manchester, northwest England, to loud applause. "The position's going to be either lay down, or stand up and fight."

On Sunday, Crow -- whose union helped bring London to a standstill last week with a 24-hour strike on Underground trains -- proposed a peaceful campaign of civil disobedience.

He suggested the action could include everything from protestors dressed as "Batman climbing up Number 10 (Downing Street) to Spiderman going up Buckingham Palace."

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) which represents some 300,000 workers, added that industrial action was "inevitable" unless the government changed course.

Meanwhile, Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union promised a movement against the cuts "on a scale you've never seen before."

The TUC is already set to lobby parliament in October and hold a day of action in March, but the vote signals an intention to take action on a grander scale.

Large-scale protests against austerity cuts have already hit other European countries such as Greece and France but are rare in Britain, due in part to more restrictive trade union legislation than in other countries.

This year's TUC has been dubbed "the most important for a generation" by one union boss with delegates furious at the extent of cuts set to be imposed by Cameron's coalition, led by the centre-right Conservatives.

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.

Cameron's official spokesman insisted Monday that the government wanted a "genuine partnership" with trade unions in dealing with the deficit.

The leadership of the TUC is taking a more measured tone on the prospect of strikes than other union leaders, stressing the need to persuade the public of the case against the cuts before resorting to strike action.

While its general secretary Brendan Barber called Cameron's coalition a "demolition government" in his speech and accused it of peddling "insulting claptrap", he said their programme would only be defeated "politically."

But he added: "Where members -- faced with attacks on jobs, pay or pensions -- take a democratic decision for industrial action, they will have the support of their unions and the TUC stands ready to coordinate that."

The motion backed by the congress includes a proposal to "support and coordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action... in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services."

© 2010 AFP

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