'The coalition has got it wrong on public sector cuts'

There is an alternative, argues the head of the TUC. But the public will only realise it once they see how deeply the axe will cut
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The vast stone sculpture by Jacob Epstein in memory of the union leaders who died in the world wars looks rather lonely in the hall of the Trades Union Congress at its London HQ in Great Russell Street.

Aside from the sculpture, the room is eerily still; there are no banners, no posters and no other visible signs that the UK's unions are preparing to protest against the coalition's spending cuts in what some threaten could be the biggest battle since Margaret Thatcher took her axe to the miners.

Upstairs in the office of the TUC's boss, Brendan Barber, the mood is equally quiet and, well, business-like. His office walls are decorated with tasteful modern art and family photos; there's no clue that this might be home to Britain's most senior trade unionist. You sort of want to find a scowling Tony Woodley figure thumping the desk about the injustices of the proposed cuts. Instead, Barber's greeting is all smiles and very smooth. So is this the calm before the squall? Or are the latest threats from unions that we are heading for a winter of discontent just hot air? And when the time comes, will the unions just roll over as they did in Ireland last year?

Barber admits it's going to be a tough fight but he's no pushover. "Look, it's a phoney war at the moment. All the opinion polls show us that the Government has got public support for cutting the deficit – that there is no alternative. But we've got to move from the abstract, to convince the public there is an alternative to the coalition's spending cuts which will lose so many jobs. The Government lacks a convincing narrative about how it will achieve growth or that the private sector can bear the load of the job cuts. That's the real issue. How are we going to create the new jobs?"

But, he says, the tide is beginning to turn. "There are many serious academics and commentators who are beginning to see through the Government's arguments and to challenge the view that there is no alternative. I don't think many people had really appreciated the practical implications of the emergency Budget. It's only now that the first flicker of doubt is emerging, as we are seeing with the latest cuts to the Building for Schools programme, which will mean the loss of jobs not just in the public sector but in construction too."

And it's because Barber believes that the mood will swing against the Government once the public understands the full ramifications of cuts to local communities, schools, councils and services that the TUC is suggesting union protest should be delayed until next March, although a national rally has been called for the eve of the comprehensive spending review (CSR) in October. But many of the more frustrated unions, including Bob Crow's Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers' union and the Fire Brigades Union, want action this autumn.

Tension is also rising at the Public and Commercial Services Union, the one that will bear the brunt of the expected job losses, and it's calling for a national day of action to mark the CSR and a co-ordinated campaign of industrial action backed by the TUC. The PCS is threatening to go solo if it doesn't get backing. In another move, Unison, the UK's biggest union with 1.3 million workers, has called on unions here to join the European day of solidarity on 29 September to protest against austerity cuts now swinging their way across the continent.

Ever the diplomat, Barber says the timing and extent of the campaign will be thrashed out at the TUC conference in Manchester next month, when he will need all his negotiating skills as it promises to be more challenging than anything seen in the 13 years of Labour rule. It's something which Barber is good at – he's been at the TUC for 35 years and general secretary for seven – and behind the scenes has banged many heads together, most recently in the dispute between Tony Woodley's Unite union and Willie Walsh's BA. So trying to get him to predict we are heading for another "winter of discontent" doesn't work. On the contrary, the TUC, he says, is proud that the number of days lost to industrial action continues to fall.

Ultimately, he's pragmatic. "Going on strike is still a big decision for many people. And, in this difficult climate, people are scared about their jobs so it's understandable that they are nervous about industrial action."

However, Barber does hope the TUC's campaign will draw in a much wider public than just union members. "We want our campaign for political change to get support across the country. We have to make the arguments that cuts are going to affect the real world."

While Barber agrees that there can be efficiencies, even in the public sector, the main thrust of his argument is that the coalition got it wrong, allowing itself to be locked into a timetable on the deficit. "After the election, there was an unnecessary fear that the coalition had to do something quickly, otherwise the UK's credit worthiness was at risk. It was too quick. People needed time to digest the deficit, to see how the numbers could be calibrated. The rush led to the wrong shift between spending cuts and tax rises, the 80/20 split. And it's a grotesque view people have that everyone in the public sector is sitting in the lap of luxury with their gold-plated pensions." On public sector pay, he says: "I will be fascinated to see how Will Hutton deals with such a sensitive issue."

Barber's biggest concern is how the UK will absorb the two million or so workers whose jobs could be lost over the next five years if all the cuts go through as planned. "The most disingenuous aspect of the fair cuts line is the fact that the Government's plans will inevitably throw vast numbers on to the dole in the public and private sectors. Different analyses suggest different levels of joblessness as a result of £60bn of cuts, but in every case, the figures run into the hundreds of thousands." And this will not only be a disaster for all those facing unemployment but will also further damage an already fragile economy.

So what's the alternative? What would the TUC propose? Tax reform is at the top of his agenda. "We want to see much bolder tax reforms and banning the loopholes which allow the super-rich and some companies to avoid paying around £25bn. There are still too many loopholes for the very wealthy and this is one of the most offensive things. The very rich always manage to escape while the poorest are hit the hardest."

But Barber and the TUC, which represents one in four of all workers, also wants training and education of Britain's workforce to improve, thus helping the country's competitiveness, an issue on which it is in complete agreement with big business and the Government. At the last count, the UK was about 11th in a ranking of productivity within OECD countries and is forecast to drop further. "Improving productivity and workplace performance is of great importance to us and in the many countries with higher productivity than our own, union density is higher than ours. This goes against the traditional belief that collective bargaining and union membership have a negative impact on productivity."

At the same time, the unions are working hard to improve skills – a third of all workers have no training at all. "One effective way of improving skills has been the TUC's Unionlearn scheme which works with 25,000 union stewards within companies who are responsible for negotiating with employers, and local councils, to open learning centres where staff can have access to constant training."

Barber also wants to see union trustees, who sit on the boards of pensions funds, take a more involved and educated role in the companies where they invest, while the TUC has its own tough new view on changes to UK takeover rules to ensure employees' rights are better protected.

But with membership falling, and workers fearful of striking, haven't the unions lost the fire in their belly? Have 13 years of Labour patronage, and big pension pots, taken the sting out of the movement? Barber dismisses such notions. "Unions are even more powerful today than ever and if you look at the pay, health and safety conditions for our members, then they are so much better today than before." He cites the way the unions have worked more closely together with employers during this recession than during previous times of trouble as evidence that Britain's traditional workers-vs-management mentality has changed. "We saw companies and the unions negotiate carefully over pay, with some unions like those at JCB taking a pay cut or working reduced hours in return for keeping their jobs. We hope this can continue."

Relations may have improved within the private sector but the next few months are going to be the most testing for decades. With the prospect of up to one million jobs in the public sector being lost, how will relations pan out with the coalition?

Barber says it's too early to tell. "It's still the honeymoon period." Contrary to certain press reports, Barber has met David Cameron on a number of occasions and had invited him to talk to next month's conference, but the Prime Minister has withdrawn because his wife's baby is due. Barber will meet him again soon, though, and looks forward to "pragmatic and interesting discussion".

"But I don't pretend it will be easy. We don't want industrial disruption, but there's a real anger growing about the impact of these cuts. This is not Greece, nor Spain, and we have to show the Government their proposals are going to have a devastating impact." Barber has sent the same message to Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, and the Chancellor, George Osborne, during their meetings and he will continue to press home the alternative.

So what does he think of the coalition? Barber chuckles. "It's a bit like what we in the TUC call a composite motion – a compromise between two opposing ideas." And the Labour leadership contest? He looks askance: "Not very invigorating."

Curriculum Vitae

Born: 3 April 1951 in Southport

Education: St Mary's College, a grammar school in Crosby; a gap year with Voluntary Service Overseas teaching in Ghana; BA Honours in social sciences at City University London


1974 researcher for the Ceramics, Glass and Mineral Products Industry Training Board

1975 joined the TUC as a policy officer

1976 Assistant Secretary

2003 General Secretary, member of the court of the Bank of England

Pastimes: Everton Football Club supporter and keen golfer

Union Facts

Number of work days lost through industrial action

1960: 130

1979: 1,195

1984: 1,199

2010: 17

Union membership

1989: 7.2 million

1999: 7 million

2009: 6.7 million


Union members' pay is more than 15 per cent greater than non-members'