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
The chief political officer of Unite is of less significance now that Charlie Whelan has left and Labour is out of power. But it is worth recording who has just been picked for the job; former London political officer Adrian Weir. Unlike Whelan he will not report directly to Len McCluskey, the general secretary. Instead new chief of staff, Andy Murray (who also chairs the Stop the War Coalition) is increasingly seen as the power behind the throne at Britain’s biggest union.
Unite had been talking to Joe Irvin, former political secretary to Gordon Brown, about replacing Whelan, as I reported last autumn. But apparently Murray was not keen on this idea. 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
All change at Britain’s biggest union, not only with a new general secretary to be announced at the end of November. I’m also told that Charlie Whelan, the Brownite ultra, is set to leave in February to move on to new pastures – possibly of a media nature.
The story is somewhat complicated by the fact that the former spin doctor says it is nonsense and that he will be in the job until his death. But my sources are good enough to report it anyhow. We’ll find out in the next half year who is telling porkies. 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
As Britain’s largest union Unite should have considerable influence over the leadership contest; unions make up a third of the total voting. Although unions don’t have single bloc votes they can tell members who they favour.
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
Charlie Whelan has given an interview to Will Straw’s pro-Labour Left Foot Forward blog. Worth a read.
He claims the Tories are carrying out an anti-union “witch hunt”. Read more
Mea culpa. I missed the most interesting angle on the Stalybridge and Hyde selection yesterday; the exclusion of James Purnell’s anointed successor, Johnny Reynolds. He is now back on the shortlist after an intervention by both Purnell and Lord Mandelson.
Mandelson’s action re-opened the shortlist. Or so Tom Watson (who is heavily involved in the selection procedure) has said in a statement to The Times, adding, curtly: “I know of no rule that allows for an appeal once the panel has decided the shortlist.” Another rejected candidate, Glyn Ford – ironically from Unite – is now also seeking an appeal. Read more
Before lunch I attended an amusing Tory event designed to reinforce the impression that Labour has reverted to Old Labour. Theresa Villiers, Eric Pickles and Michael Gove were our hosts – ironically at Transport House, former home of the T&G.
Some of the language was delightfully ripe, with Gove suggesting that Charlie Whelan had “unleashed the forces of hell” on families wanting to fly abroad over Easter. “I would never go as far as calling Charlie Whelan an ‘aggressive hooligan’, ‘serial killer*‘ or ‘killing machine’ – but then, civil servants and senior Labour figures have already said that,” said the shadow education spokesman. He also described a “second Mesozoic era, with a succession of dinosaurs trooping through Downing Street.”
But does Gove’s main premise stack up? Read more