Andrew Grice: It's just like old times as unions grab the spotlight

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The Independent Online

The trade unions are back. After years in the wilderness – apart from one week a year in the spotlight during the TUC's annual conference – they are all over the TV news bulletins and front pages.

Some union leaders revel in all the attention. They may not have the industrial muscle they enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, but Thursday's strikes by teachers, lecturers and civil servants over plans to cut public sector pensions, provoked tensions in both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet.

Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office ministers, argued against a propaganda campaign against the unions, warning it could harm negotiations with them on pensions. "We can get a deal," they told the Cabinet. But a last-minute offensive went ahead.

Mr Miliband was wary about being on the wrong side of public opinion – and aware the Tories and their press allies would again paint him as "Red Ed" unless he opposed this week's action.

He believed the strikes were premature while the talks continued – a view shared privately by some union leaders – and that it was common sense to call for both sides to return to the negotiating table. Not everyone agreed, and normally loyal Shadow Cabinet allies including Peter Hain and Sadiq Khan had to be ordered into line.

Having united the unions, the Government must now try to divide them. Local government workers could hold the key. A settlement here might deter big unions such as Unite, Unison and the GMB from joining the co-ordinated strikes some unions seek in the autumn.

Despite the rhetoric from both sides, ministers and TUC leaders believe a deal is still possible. One senior union official said: "There is no appetite for an autumn of discontent. The key question is what the Government does next."

The sticking point is the Government's desire to see a 3 per cent rise in pension contributions. But there is room for compromise. Ministers have promised no increase in pension payments for workers earning less than £15,000 a year. They are prepared to move further, perhaps through higher contributions by higher earners and phasing in the changes, as long as the overall savings are still achieved on schedule.

Opinion polls suggest sympathy for public sector workers' attempts to defend their pensions, but not for strikes which inconvenience the public.

Both sides want to look reasonable. Mr Cameron does not share the craving of right-wing Tories for a symbolic Thatcher-style victory over the unions. Similarly, sensible union leaders talk of "smart" industrial action but admit that closing schools does not look very smart to many parents.

There is scope for a deal if both the Government and unions give ground. That should happen, in order to avoid a pitched battle that neither side nor the public want.