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British Unions Threaten Showdown Over Austerity Cuts

Stefano Ambrogi

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Brendan Barber speaks at the Institute of Directors annual convention in London May 11, 2011. (Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett)

LONDON -- The coalition government must abandon harsh public-sector spending cuts and tax rises that are hurting millions of workers and risk tipping the economy back into recession, the country's top union official said on Monday.

Brendan Barber, head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the Conservative-led coalition had started an ideologically-based austerity drive under the pretext of eliminating a record budget deficit.

Barber said the coalition's real goal was to permanently roll back the state, according to advance extracts of a speech to union leaders at their annual conference in London.

"For them this isn't temporary pain, but the culmination of a long held dream -- a chance to implement policies under cover of the crash that they know voters have rejected over and over again," he said.

The three-day meeting is shaping up to be the most highly charged in years, coming in the middle of key talks between ministers and unions on controversial public-sector pension reform and as spending cuts bite.

Some of the country's most powerful union leaders lined up over the weekend to call on the government to negotiate properly and change tack over workers' pension contributions or face co-ordinated strikes by millions of workers this autumn.

An overhaul of pensions is a central plank of the government's package of austerity measures adopted to tackle a budget deficit running at 10 percent of GDP.

Unions say the negotiations on the crunch issue have so far been a shambles and accuse the government of trying to raise workers' pensions contributions without delay and at any cost.

The government, which says the current system is no longer affordable because people are living longer, maintains the hike is needed by next April to raise more than 1 billion pounds of extra revenue in 2012-2013.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, Britain's biggest representing 1.5 million workers, said on Sunday the government's "continued attacks" on workers' pay, jobs and pensions would provoke national unrest.


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"From civil disobedience to industrial action, this is the moment we defend what is decent and fair," he said.

Dave Prentis of Unison, the country's second biggest union, also upped the ante over pensions. "We can see no signs of any willingness on the part of the government to actually reach compromise," he told Sky News.

"We want viable pension schemes, we want to negotiate but we need somebody to negotiate with."

Prentis has previously said the pensions row could herald the biggest wave of industrial action since the 1926 general strike in which 3 million workers took part.

Barber, regarded as a moderate leader, has said the TUC was "prepared and ready" to coordinate action if needed.

The TUC umbrella group represents 58 trade unions and almost 6.5 million workers, or a quarter of the workforce.

Britain's largest civil service union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, has already said its members are gearing up for a day of action in November that could involve up to 10 unions and millions of workers.

Barber said the government risked plunging the economy into a recession worse than the one sparked by the financial crisis of 2008 if it failed to change course.

He said Britain was in the middle of the deepest program of cuts since the 1920s.

"What is even worse is that it's hurting, but it ain't working," Barber said. "The cuts have stamped on growth -- and the UK economy is still producing less than before the crash, while other countries have at least recovered that gap."

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