Union leaders warn of strikes and deep unrest over 'cuts that hurt poor'

TUC annual conference will hear calls for industrial action and national demonstrations spreading to 2011. Nigel Morris reports

Union leaders will today endorse plans for the biggest show of industrial muscle for two decades including co-odinated industrial action, days of protest and national demonstrations against the Government's austerity measures. Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, will evoke the spirit of the poll-tax protests at the opening of the TUC's annual conference in Manchester today.

The resistance is expected to begin next month, on the eve of Chancellor George Osborne's comprehensive spending review, and come to a head in spring 2011 as the impact of the cuts begins to be felt. Some left-wing unions are pressing for more dramatic action, calling for strikes to begin this year or even raising the prospect of campaigns of civil disobedience against the cuts. The divisions over tactics will be made clear as the TUC begins its annual gathering with a debate over how to defend spending on public services.

A study by the GMB union yesterday suggested that 150,000 posts are being cut in 150 public-sector organisations, including government departments, NHS trusts, police authorities and the fire service. Analysis by The Independent last week also discovered that 45,000 job losses are already in the pipeline in local authorities as town halls attempt to cut spending by about 25 per cent.

The TUC will approve joint campaigns of industrial action, at local and national level, against redundancies, pay-cuts and reductions to pension entitlements. The unions will attempt to tap into wider community opposition to the spending squeeze in an attempt to create a "progressive alliance", arguing that the pace of the cuts is reckless and that jobs vital to the quality of life will be lost.

Plans are being drawn up for a lobby of Parliament on 19 October, the day before the spending cuts are detailed, and for a national protest next March. The unions will have Labour's broad backing regardless of which of the leadership contenders, who will appear at a TUC hustings today, wins the contest. Harriet Harman, the party's acting leader, who also addresses the conference today, said yesterday that no one wanted to see strikes, but added that Labour felt "militant" about the effect of the planned cuts on public services.

Mr Barber yesterday stressed that the movement did not envisage a general strike, but acknowledged that "difficult disputes" were ahead as unions sought to defend jobs and conditions. He is attempting to keep some lines of communications open with the government in the hope that will be "fruitful" confrontations rather than head-on ones.

But Bob Crow, the hardline general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, called for a campaign of civil disobedience, suggesting that protesters could block major roads by sitting on them. Referring to protests by the Fathers For Justice group, he said: "Maybe we need Batman climbing up 10 Downing street, and Spider-Man on Buckingham Palace." He added: "Unions should also link up together because we are confronting the same enemy; otherwise they will be picked off one at a time."

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents civil servants, also called for co-ordinated protests to prevent a "bleak" future for workers. He warned that industrial action was inevitable and could start as early as this year. Mr Serwotka said 100,000 civil service posts had already been lost in six years, but added: "We ain't seen nothing yet. People are very worried and demoralised and are just waiting for things to get worse."

But Les Bayliss, who is standing to become the general secretary of Unite, warned that a wave of public-sector strikes would be counter-productive, turning trade unionists into the "villains of the piece". He said: "The story will get changed from government savagery to union militancy. The Tories will hit us with even more restrictive laws and working people will look away in disgust."

As ministers continue negotiations over ways of cutting the £155bn national deficit, the government was thrown on the defensive by a leaked letter from Mr Osborne which outlined plans to cut benefits for the sick and disabled by £2.5bn a year. According to the memo, he signalled that agreement had been reached to make the saving on spending on the employment and support allowance, the successor to incapacity benefit.

The move was described by Labour as a "vicious cut on the poorest" and condemned by disability charities. But Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said things had "moved on" since the letter was written. He told Sky News: "Tackling the enormous deficit that Labour left us with is essential to underpinning the economic recovery. If we don't do that in the way that the Labour leadership candidates (who seem to be in denial about the mess that they left the country in) would say, then we would end up in a worse economic position than if we took the action we are taking to reduce the deficit."

The TUC yesterday released research concluding that the poorest 10 per cent of people will be hit 13 times harder by the cuts than the richest 10 per cent in the year 2012-13. It echoed a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which described Mr Osborne's Budget as generally "regressive", hitting the poorest the hardest in the long term.

The TUC said single parents and pensioners would bear the brunt of the cuts, which would also fall more heavily in the North than the South of England. Mr Barber said: "This is the classic doublethink. They might say progressive, but these cuts will make the poll tax look as if it was dreamt up by Robin Hood."

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