Public-sector strikes may struggle for sympathy

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Almost three-quarters of workers believe public-sector staff would be making a tactical mistake if they chose to take industrial action in the wake of this week's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), a study suggests.

However, a significant minority of public-sector workers, who will bear the immediate brunt of cuts due to be unveiled in Wednesday's CSR, are prepared to disrupt services in order to defend jobs, according to the poll published today by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Across Britain as a whole, 74 per cent of employees warned that public-sector workers who chose to go on strike would very quickly lose public sympathy for the cuts they are facing. Among public-sector workers the figure is 59 per cent. However, almost half of the public-sector employees surveyed also said they believed that "workers have to do what is necessary to protect their jobs", up to and including taking industrial action that disrupts public services.

Mike Emmott, the CIPD's employee relations adviser, said the survey showed that while there was an appetite in some parts of the public sector for a relatively militant response to the spending review, it also suggested that trade unions should not count on public support.

"These findings show that it is not just the Government that has to tread softly in terms of how spending cuts are implemented," Mr Emmott said. "The unions too must understand that many private-sector employees have already suffered pay freezes or cuts, job losses and cuts to pension entitlement and will be sensitive to any rhetoric by union leaders threatening strike action which does not appear to appreciate the sacrifices already made by those in the private sector."

A report earlier this month by the accountant PricewaterhouseCoopers said the pain of the CSR was likely to be felt relatively equally across the public and private sectors, with both due to lose about half a million jobs as a result of spending cuts over the next five years. However, ministers are aware that public-sector workplaces typically attract much higher levels of union membership and are braced for an angry response to the cuts.

Some in the private sector are so worried about the potential of industrial action to cause further damage to the economy that they have called for new restrictions on workers' rights, with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), for example, campaigning for a raft of new regulation.

The employers' organisation has warned again that it is nervous about the industrial relations climate in the year ahead, amid continuing pressure on wages and recruitment. Its latest survey suggests that while seven in 10 private-sector firms say employee relations remain co-operative, many expect difficult times in the next 12 months.

"During the recession, private sector employees adopted a can-do attitude, accepting that measures such as pay and recruitment freezes were the alternative to companies going under, and further job losses," said John Cridland, the CBI deputy director-general. "Sustaining that spirit of co-operation will be more challenging now the immediate threat appears to have passed."

The CBI's research, conducted with the recruitment specialist Harvey Nash, shows that only one in four companies plans to recruit new staff in the next 12 months. Only one in 10 employers is currently planning to offer a pay rise in excess of inflation.