Unions say action could turn into national strike

TUC conference told of co-ordinated walk-outs by public sector over austerity measures

Britain's biggest public sector unions are planning to co-ordinate a fresh wave of strikes to protest against job losses and the pay freeze.

The Government is facing industrial action by millions of workers, which supporters claim could escalate into a general strike against its austerity measures.

As the TUC conference opened yesterday, Unison and the GMB disclosed that they were co-operating on a planned campaign over pay and pensions. The Brighton gathering is also expected to pass a motion backing joint protests and to consider the "practicalities of a general strike".

Teachers' union leaders will also decide this week whether to co-ordinate walkouts, and they are likely to be joined by the Public and Commercial Services union. Their industrial action could follow soon after the anti-austerity marches planned by the TUC on 20 October in London, Glasgow and Belfast.

Brendan Barber, the TUC's outgoing general secretary, said the conference would demonstrate the "real anger" felt by trade unionists at the squeeze on their living standards and warned that there was "every possibility" of more strikes.

Two days of action were staged by the unions last year against the Coalition's measures, and the planned protests will represent a new challenge to the Government – and put pressure on the Labour leadership, which backed the pay freeze. Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, is due to address the conference tomorrow.

Unison's leader, Dave Prentis, said: "We are willing to negotiate, but if we cannot reach agreement, we will ballot for industrial action. It is on the agenda for the coming year. This is more than rhetoric."

Paul Kenny, the GMB's general secretary, said: "It is time for politicians to treat public sector workers with respect, rather than slagging them off. There comes a point when people say they have had enough."

Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, warned the Government not to pick a fight with workers to cover its "dire" handling of the economy.

He told the conference's opening session yesterday that last week's ministerial reshuffle was an "ill-disguised" preparation for an attack on workers' pay and rights, and accused the Government of plotting a "sacker's charter". He declared: "We've taken on bad bosses and won – we will see off the Tory right too."

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