Any attempt by the Government to toughen strike laws could result in wild-cat walkouts by public sector workers causing mass disruption across the country, the head of Britain's union movement warns today.
Describing any move to restrict the right to strike as “utterly unjustified” Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, said new laws would
result in groups of frustrated workers taking matters into the own hands.
Mr Barber, speaking ahead of the TUC’s annual conference next week, added that unions would decide by the end of October whether to take action against planned increases to public sector pension contributions.
“I am not complacent that we might face changes to strike laws,” he said. “They would be utterly unjustified and we will resist them very, very fiercely.
“We have the tightest regulations on strikes anywhere in the advanced industrial world and there is no decent intellectual or political justification for tightening them still further.
“If they do try and change the law the Government would run a real risk of provoking more groups of workers to think ‘We’ll go down different routes - we won’t have ballots. We’ll carry out wild cat responses.’ That would make strikes much more difficult to deal with.”
Next week’s TUC Congress is likely to be the most charged for years as it comes in the middle of critical negotiations between ministers and the unions over pension reform.
The Government is insisting that public sector workers – including some of the lowest paid – significantly increase the contributions they pay into state-controlled pension schemes by next April, to raise £1.3 billion in extra revenue for the Treasury.
Mr Barber, who is one of the key union leaders conducting the negotiations, warned that the issue could derail the talks – putting long-term pension reform in jeopardy and bringing hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses and civil servants out onto the streets in protest.
Mr Barber said increasing contributions immediately was not a proposal put forward in the original report on pension reform written by the former Labour Minister Lord Hutton – despite it being cited by ministers.
He said workers were already being asked to accept reforms which would significantly reduce the value of schemes such as pensions based on career average earnings and a later retirement age. Increasing pension contributions at the same time, he suggested, represented “a tax on public sector workers”.
Asked if contributions were a “deal breaker” Mr Barber said: “It’s a very, very difficult issue. Are we going to resolve it? I just don’t know.
“Public sector workers are already subject to a pay freeze which amounts to a real terms pay cut of about five per cent. Now they are being told that on top of that if they want to stay in their pension schemes they have to pay more. It’s hugely provocative.
“The Government is claiming all their proposals are based on Lord Hutton’s recommendations. But he never recommended three per cent rise in contributions. I don’t think his report has been accurately represented.
“We will have to reach a judgement once we are a little bit further down the line what the appropriate response is. We have seen some public sector action taken by some unions at the end of June and others are very, very actively considering whether they will have to take the industrial action course as well.”
But Mr Barber, for whom this will be his ninth Congress, is keen for next week’s event not to be portrayed as being just about strikes.
He is critical of endless talk about summers, springs and indeed winters of discontent and wants to put across a wider message about the future of Britain’s economy – and the role of the TUC within it.
“There is a constant frustration at some of the media reportage in the seasonal allusions which crop up with unfailing regularity,” he half jokes.
“Next week there will be a lot coverage about pensions but I am hoping that we can get across some of the longer term issues about the shape of our economy as well.
“We are looking to develop a really sustained campaign to put a real alternative vision for running this country on the agenda.
“There is too much fixation with short termism – making money out of derivatives and all that stuff – rather than patient investment in long term wealth creation.
“Over the last 30 years the proportion of wealth that goes into pay packets has shrunk from 65 per cent to just over 50 per cent of GDP. We want to convince the British people that there are a different set of values that ought to be holding sway.”
Asked whether he thought the economic situation and public sector cuts had been partly responsible for last month’s riots Mr Barber – in the same formula as Ed Miliband – said that while he did not condone what had happened it was simplistic to suggest that it was just pure criminality.
“I am not in any way trying to justify or suggest there was any excuse for such violent behaviour which terrorised communities but to say as the Prime Minister has that this was criminality ‘pure and simple’ as if one does not need to look at what else has been happening is simplistic.
“The riots took place predominantly in areas suffering real social deprivation. Predominantly the people we have seen going through the court system have not been engaged in work or education. So does that justify what they did? No. But were these factors that help explain what happened then yes.
“If you are cutting away at the services young people rely upon like the youth service – and that’s been happening savagely – is that going to help or hinder?”
And Mr Barber would know about that more than most. He spent the first 16 years of his life in a borstal in Southport, living in the grounds of a young offenders' institution at which his father was a bricklaying instructor.
He himself got into a grammar school after which he spent a year teaching in Ghana before going on to the City University in London studying social sciences.
His first job after university was as a researcher for the Ceramics, Glass and Mineral Products Industry Training Board but just a year later he joined the TUC in 1975.
In April 1979, shortly before the general election that saw the defeat of the Labour Government, he became head of the TUC Press and Information Department dealing over the next eight years with an almost entirely hostile media – and confirming him in the belief that in order for unions to be successful – they can’t just preach to the converted.
“We represent over six million working people – it’s the biggest voluntary association of any sort in the country,” he said.
“Most of our time and work is not about managing whacking great conflicts it’s about managing reasonable relationships in workplaces across the country. It’s about providing and effective independent voice for working people. I would like the media to recognise that trade unionism and good working relations are part of the mix in building successful organisations.”
It maybe an uphill struggle but Barber is determined that the TUC has to be about more than strikes – even that is part of the toolbox.
“We have got some industrial battles to fight over the next few years,” he concluded. “But we want to be winning the intellectual battle too.”
It’s a tricky balance to strike.