Strike union threatens to stop £1.5m cheque for Labour

Andy McSmith
Tuesday 15 July 2008 00:00

The head of Britain's biggest public-sector union has accused Labour of being "devoid of ideas of how it's going to win the next election" and has begun a review of its £1.5m-a-year contribution to party funds.

Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, spoke out as hundreds of thousands of council workers prepare for the start of a series of strikes in support of a pay claim. The two- day strike to be held tomorrow and Thursday is expected to be one of the largest mass walk-outs for decades.

His warning, in an interview with The Independent, will add to the political pressure on Gordon Brown later this month, when Labour's National Policy Forum meets in Warwick to consider items for the next general election manifesto.

Union leaders want to include a promise to loosen up the laws regulating strikes and are intent to use their financial hold over Labour to increase their bargaining power.

About 490,000 of Unison's 1.4 million members contribute £3 a year each to the Labour Party through a special fund, providing nearly a tenth of Labour's annual income. The union also donates to constituency parties, but has begun a review of how it spends its political funds which, Mr Prentis says, will "leave no stone unturned".

"We have got the worst employment rights in Europe, probably in the industrialised western world," Mr Prentis said. "There are restrictions in place which mean it is very, very difficult to stay within the law and to represent members.

"It's not an issue of secondary picketing or an issue of going back to mass pickets. The issue is that you have a Government that believes in deregulating business and deregulating anything connected with how wealth is created for the few, and yet where we try to represent low-paid working people, we're surrounded with regulation that makes it virtually impossible."

Mr Prentis said it was not just money that is increasing union influence over party policy: it is because union leaders have a better sense than the party leadership about where they want to go.

"We have seen more and more within the party that it's devoid of ideas of how it's going to win the next election," he said. "I don't get the impression from our members that they believe the Labour Party is still understanding what they are going through.

"The electorate want clear choices. They want to know what our party stands for, and what the Tory party stands for. They want clear red water between them. Fudges are not helping anyone."

Unison says they expect around 600,000 employees to join the strike, which would make it one of biggest disputes in Britain, in terms of the numbers involved, since the 1926 General Strike. But the employers, the Local Government Association, estimate the numbers will be closer to 325,000.

The strike will cause delays in collecting rubbish, and will disrupt schools at a time when children are getting ready for end-of-term concerts and other performances. As it escalates, there will be a risk of the kind of "horror stories" about uncollected rubbish or unburied bodies that marked the 1978 Winter of Discontent, which brought down the government.

"At this stage, we want to be very careful in the way in which vulnerable people could be affected by the action," said Mr Prentis. "Nobody wants a Winter of Discontent; nobody wants a Summer of Discontent.

"But at the same time, if our members are taking industrial action; if they're losing their pay; if they're being treated as badly as they are being treated, at some point they have to make a stand."

He insisted that the union had not deliberately timed this week's strike to disrupt the end of the school year. "The action is determined by legislation. We're all parents ourselves," he said.

Unison has estimated that 580,000 of its members, and 50,000 members of the general union, Unite, will take part in the disruption, and that there will be pickets at virtually every local government premises in the country. More strikes, stretching over three or four days at a time, are expected to follow unless councils offer more money.

The employers admit that schools, refuse collection, and adult social care will be affected.

Unison is demanding a pay increase of 6 per cent, or 50p an hour, whichever is greater. Some of its members, such as street cleaners, work full-time for less than £12,000 a year. Mr Prentis claims that councils can afford the increase without raising council tax because of efficiency savings. The employers have offered a 2.45 per cent pay rise, which the unions argue amounts to a pay cut when set against rising food and fuel prices.

Jan Parkinson, managing director of Local Government Employers, said: "Strikes will not change the fact that our last offer was our final offer. If the pay settlement is any higher, councils will be forced to make the unpalatable choice between cutting frontline services and laying off staff."

Who's going on strike?

*Tomorrow's strike could potentially affect any premises in England, Wales or Northern Ireland where the workforce is employed by the local council, including state schools. Teaching assistants, school clerical staff and dinner ladies are being called out, but not the teachers, who belong to a different union. Refuse collection is expected to be disrupted as the collectors strike. There is also the potential threat to the vulnerable as social workers walk out – although the union is exempting members who work with the very vulnerable. The other workers involved include town hall staff, librarians, parks and leisure staff, cooks, cleaners, housing benefit workers, rent collectors, council tax officers, parking attendants dog wardens, street cleaners, architects and surveyors.

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