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.) Read more
David Cameron has just used his LGA conference speech to defend reforms to public sector pensions, arguing that his proposals are fair. He has suggested that people are being told “scare stories” about the government plans. (Here is the full transcript on the Downing St website and this is our news story).
Does he have a point?
The prime minister has claimed that there are rumours that the government is “closing defined benefit schemes and replacing them with defined contribution schemes”. He also claimed that people are being told that “we are stripping workers of the benefits they have already accumulated.”
This is not true, he points out. Not only will workers still have defined benefit schemes. They will also maintain the “final salary link” for benefits already accrued. “Any suggestion otherwise is completely untrue“.
But who is actually saying this? Anyone? Or has the PM created a paper tiger?
The scare stories are the fault of the unions, Cameron appears to suggest, without actually naming them: “they are giving really bad advice to teachers, nurses and the police officers who are wondering whether to continue with their pension.”
UPDATE: Apparently the PM is not blaming the unions per se, his aides claim. Instead this emanated from the fact that Cabinet Office has spoken to public sector staff, who say they are worried about losing such benefits. “We’re very keen to get the message across out there about what we’re really doing,” says one Downing St aide.
In fact the unions are angry about the following changes, which are not yet set in stone but are proposed by the government – as my colleague Brian Groom recently explained:
* Higher contributions to pensions that will have to be made, typically rising by 3.2 per Read more
I revealed back in August that David Cameron wanted to invite Britain’s union leaders for a meeting, a surprising overture given the hostility between the two sides. The process has been complicated by the fact that the prime minister – unsurprisingly – did not want to give the brothers an excuse to publically snub him.
Yet the meeting has been scheduled for tomorrow. Patrick Hennessy at the Sunday Telegraph revealed this morning that a delegation of unnamed TUC officials is poised to go into Downing Street to meet Mr Cameron. Read more
Unison has become the second big union to back the younger Miliband in the labour leadership contest, following the GMB’s decision to do so last week. Unions carry a third of the vote in the leadership contest, and with two of the biggest now supporting Ed, he is starting to be talked about as a very credible challenger to his brother David, who remains favourite.
Ed said: “To have received the backing of a union representing millions of frontline workers is a real boost for my campaign to lead our party.”
But the big one is still to declare. That is Unite, the combined mega-union which has among its members the BA cabin crew.
It has been assumed that since Charlie Whelan, a former Brown adviser and close friend of Ed Balls, is Unite’s political director, the union would back Balls. But as the Guardian’s Michael White points out, Unite is not particularly, erm, united – and at least one of its general secretaries, Derek Simpson, supports Ed Miliband. If Unite do swing behind Mili-E, his campaign will have all the momentum. Read more
The news is in; the first big trade union has put its backing behind Ed Miliband. The GMB. It’s an important endorsement and will feed the growing feeling that Mili-E could still win through with backing from the unions, grassroots and those vital second preferences. Read more
Ministers have no qualms about standing up to the unions in the current climate, as you can see from the FT’s splash this morning about their attempts to slash redundancy terms for 500,000 civil servants. The coalition is trying to push through a move – initiated by Labour last year - to reduce the maximum pay-off from 6.5 years to 2. It was thwarted in May when the Public and Commercial Service Union won a judicial review against it.
But is the government prepared to go to war against the union movement? This is the implication from this morning’s Times front page – “Ministers in secret talks to toughen strike laws” – which claims that ministers could re-examine changing strike laws if imminent job losses lead to widespread industrial unrest.
I heard a similar rumour last week but was told the government had not changed its position since late June. Then, the CBI called for a change so that strikes could only happen if 40 per cent of the total workforce backed action – rather than, as present, a majority of those who voted. The business group was apparently slapped down by David Cameron, whose spokesman said there were “no plans to change strike legislation.”
Having “no plans” is not the same as ruling something out indefinitely, of course. Read more