Unions poised for winter of strikes

Unions are set to move closer to a winter of strikes tomorrow despite a warning from the Government that walkouts would be greeted with "little enthusiasm" by workers.

More than a million public sector workers could be involved in a one day walkout in the last week of November in protest at planned changes to their pensions, which will see contributions increase by 3.2.%.

An announcement of co-ordinated action is likely to be made following a debate at the TUC Congress in London tomorrow, when unions will line up to attack the Government.

Widespread ballots for action are expected to be held, adding to support for strikes already given by civil servants, teachers and lecturers, heralding the biggest outbreak of industrial unrest for decades.

Plans to co-ordinate industrial action will be discussed at the TUC, but sources said a large number of unions were now moving towards balloting for strikes.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet minister who is leading negotiations for the Government, said he was not trying to provoke unions into industrial action, adding that any strike call will be greeted with little enthusiasm from workers and even less sympathy from the general public.

"We don't want strikes and the public will be very fed up if there are widespread strikes which close schools and affect health services and transport.

"People who are struggling to pay their bills and paying more towards public sector pensions in many cases than they are paying towards their own pensions will be mightily fed up if there is unnecessary strike action," he told a Westminster lunch.

Labour leader Ed Miliband was heckled today when he told the TUC Congress that strikes over public sector pensions were a mistake.

He said he understood why millions of workers were angry, adding: "But while negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that.

"What we need now is meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over this autumn. Strikes are always the consequence of failure. Failure on all sides. Failure we cannot afford as a nation. Instead your real role is as partners in the new economy."

Some of the 300 delegates shouted out "shame" and took issue with the labour leader's message.

During a question and answer session after his speech, Mr Miliband also drew shouts of disagreement when he defended academy schools, saying two in his Doncaster North constituency had made a big difference to education standards.

Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said she had been proud to join a strike in June by tens of thousands of teachers and civil servants and told Mr Miliband that the Government was not prepared to negotiate a deal over its planned pension reforms.

Union leaders were split on their reaction to the speech.

Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB, said: "I have to give him credit for his courage in coming here and speaking frankly to us."

But Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said: "Ed Miliband needs to decide just whose side he is on. Criticising teachers and other workers taking strike action to defend jobs, services and pensions alienates core Labour supporters in their hundreds of thousands and is a political suicide mission."

Unite leader Len McCluskey said: "Working people have heard from a Labour leader who is on their side, offering a message of hope and an alternative economic strategy, putting jobs and a decent future for our kids ahead of the interests of the elite."

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said he expected Mr Miliband to support public sector workers and to defend the pensions deal struck by the previous Labour government.

He said: "There was an understanding of the work of unions and the need for fairness and we are glad he had a go at bankers."

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said Mr Miliband's refusal to support the public sector strike was a "slap in the face", adding: "Not only is Mr Miliband turning his back on our members, he's turning his back on the union members who voted for him as leader in their thousands."

Mr Miliband told the conference that Labour will not be able to reverse every cut being imposed as a result of the Government's austerity measures.

"If we were in Government we would also be making some cuts in spending. I sometimes hear it said that Labour opposes every cut. Some of you might wish that was true, but it's not."

Labour planned for a 12% cut in the police budget, cut the road programme and reform some benefits, said Mr Miliband, continuing: "There are cuts the Tories will impose that we will not be able to reverse when we return to government."

He said Government, employers and unions had to change to meet future challenges, adding that he believed unions could offer businesses the prospect of better employee relations.

Mr Miliband pointed out that only 15% of workers in private firms were in a union, saying unions had to make sure they were relevant.

"You know you will never have relevance if you allow yourselves to be painted as the opponents of change."


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