Monday, 12 September 2011
We'll all stand together'
It was Manchester last year but this year it's London. Yes, the TUC conference are very much staying at home. They're all fitting into the TUC, Russell Street headquarters. These are hard economic times. brother.
Downsizing conference is one thing but there will be plenty that will be speaking out loudly about the downsizing of the economy.
Two themes will dominate conference. The first, will be the need for a plan ‘B’ for the economy to prevent the country tipping into a double-dip recession. Secondly, the need to protect public sector pensions from shrinkage.
And the talk of the conference? “Smart” strikes.
What are ‘”smart” strikes, you may ask? These are a series of strikes called by different unions on different days. Resulting in the maximum of damage to us with the minimum of cost to them. There was a taster this spring when the public sector day strike was followed immediately by Teachers’ strike.
The omens are of a repeat this winter.
If the current negotiations between the Public Sector Unions and the government on pensions don't get sorted soon, a winter of industrial disputes will follow. In popular parlance, the union leaders are getting ready to place their tanks on the government’s lawn.
The leader of the Unite union said in yesterday’s Observer, that his union would consider all forms of protest from civil disobedience to coordinated industrial strikes.
Dave Prentis of Unison, which is the largest public sector union, predicted that if the talks did not achieve a breakthrough soon industrial action would “come ever closer.” The leaders of other public sector unions have made similar predictions.
So out of the public gaze this week in the non-smoke filled rooms union bosses will get down to the job of planning a coordinated campaign of disruption. The aim, to get the government to think again on cuts to pensions.
How will the government respond? Well, it’s a dispute despite all the posturing that could be settled.
Although the rhetoric is that pensions in the public sector are unaffordable, there are s doubts about the validity of such claims.
Indeed, the report produced for the government by John Hutton on public sector pensions, showed that the cost of pensions as a proportion of GDP was set to fall over the coming decade.
Unless decent pension provisions are made in both the public and private sector, future governments are going to face a crisis. There are likely to be large sections of the population retiring from work without a proper pension.
The spectre of real poverty in old age will face many. So not only is a settlement possible but many would argue is absolutely necessary.
The jury is still out, as to whether or not government will climb down, act sensibly and reach an accommodation. The signs at the moment don’t look promising.
There are many in the Conservative ranks of the coalition that are gung-ho and want the government to dig in their heels and take on the unions.
Without doubt unions are not the force they used to be. Unions have been weakened since the seventies. They have considerably less members than then. But it would be foolish to underestimate them. Any “smart” strike could cause some real damage to an already weakened economy.
There has to be good reason to square up to our public workers and to do so on the pension issue is foolish indeed.
Who will win and who will loose in such a dispute depends much on the way the public react. If Mr Cameron makes the wrong call on this one it could seriously damage his government’s health.
The last winter of discontent saw off the Callaghan government, will history repeat itself.