Sunday, 12 September 2010

Pensions and poverty powderkeg issues for TUC

Not even Bob Crow, the media's favourite left-wing militant, was going to take the bait on questions about a general strike against government cuts today, although that didn't stop us all from asking.

The line from all the union leaders, as we settled into Manchester and the TUC conference with a day of press briefings, was that general strikes against government policy is illegal but woe betide the coalition if government policy comes looking for trade unionists.

The preferred euphemism for union resistance to the cuts is "co-ordinated action" and the tinderkeg issue, that could see several public sector unions simultaneously, is reform to public sector pensions.

That's what took French workers onto the the streets in their thousands last week and the unions made it clear that any challenge to British pension rights could have the same effect. So far, all that is agreed is a national demonstration sometime befoe next March, but other work is ongoing.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, the civil service union, said that co-ordinated strike action with other unions like Unison was already being planned on issues like cuts in public sector pensions.

Serwotka said: “If the government announces a big hike in our pension contributions and a cut in our pensions scheme we are absolutely clear that every union affected should ballot for action together. You have a better chance of defending yourself like that.“

He added: “I think that industrial action on a large scale is inevitable unless the government changes direction.”

This is the first TUC since the new government came in and the mood seems serious. But the unions are holding back a lot of their fire until the October spending review and meanwhile emphasising their role as defenders of the poor and the vulnerable and going some way to countering the myth that cuts are "unavoidable" and somehow all the fault of the previous government.

Brendan Barber highlighted research showing how the planned spending cuts will make Britain more unequal, hitting the poorest 13 times harder than the rich.

But it was Serwotka, again, who showed the passion. He said: "The tone of the debate is actually disgusting. Millionaires lecture us on 'lifestyle choices' about living out of work - they are living in a bubble of privilege."

"It is not a lifestyle choice it is a depressingly real for them when there are 500,000 vacancies and 2.5 m out of work it is a bleak reality."

"To blame them is one of the worst things. We want to defend members, yes, but we also want to defend and stand with the unemployed, the elderly and the disabled who deserve better than they get and could not bear the brunt of some vicious cutbacks.”

“The militants in all of this are the right wing ideologues who are attacking the welfare state.”

Yes, that scraping noise you heard was the sound of battlelines being drawn.

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