This blog has in the past been cautious about the prospect of mass industrial action in the UK, given the tendency for union leaders to exaggerate their militancy – and newspapers’ love of a good “Winter of Discontent” headline.
But now the threat feels very real for the first time in months. When the likes of Prospect and the FDA are talking about strike ballots, there is a sense that more confrontation is inevitable; the only question is how widespread the actions will be, the level of support within the unions, and the timing. It is still not guaranteed that there will be a crippling universal action.
(Those unions who went on strike in June – the PCS, NUT etc – were not Labour-affililiated.)
The crucial issue is pension reform. Talks have been going for months between ministers and union leaders over plans to increase pension contributions; switch from final salary to career average; and change from RPI-linked payments to CPI-linked. While there has been a modicum of progress in some quarters (such as local government) the outlook seems bleak.
Moderate unions say they could give way in some areas, such as the career average change – but they are resisting the scale of contribution increases, at least while there is still a freeze in public sector salaries.
The talks end in October with few expecting a cheerful outcome at this point.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, has just threatened the “biggest campaign of civil disobedience their tiny minds could ever imagine.”
As a result you might expect this autumn’s TUC Conference to have a buzzing atmosphere. Instead the reverse is true. The three-day event is taking place at Congress House in London – to save money – instead of in a regional city. Attendance seems sparse.
Perhaps this reflects the fact that the “story” will not come to a head until next month. Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, only made a glancing reference to the difficult pension talks – mentioning that there would be a debate on them on Wednesday. It feels rather as if this is the calm before the storm.
Tuesday will see Ed Miliband give a speech to the brothers; don’t expect him to embrace the prospect of industrial action with any relish. Mili-E is straining every sinew to shed any idea that he only got the job thanks to a union stitch-up – and any strikes (expected in late November) may be bad PR for the wider movement.