Questions over mass strikes in Britain

September 15, 2010

, MANCHESTER, Sept 15 – Could Britain soon see strikes on the scale of Greece or France? While its trade unions have backed joint action, questions remain about whether this will happen and its likely impact.

There has been a lot of fiery rhetoric at this week\’s annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) about the need for coordinated action to fight proposed government austerity cuts, prompting headlines predicting "all-out strikes."

Some union chiefs hail what has happened elsewhere in Europe — where millions have taken to the streets, causing widespread disruption — and are confident of strong support for such steps.

"I look at France and and I look at Greece and other places and I\’m inspired by the fact that many unions are able to just mobilise together," Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and a leading voice for joint action, told AFP.

But others worry that trying to fight the cuts with widespread strikes likely to be opposed by many members of the public could prove disastrous.

"It\’s not just about putting your head down and running at them," said Dave Ward, deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers\’ Union (CWU), who also highlighted the need for campaigning against the cuts in the community.

Trade unions in Britain have lost much of their influence since their heyday before former premier Margaret Thatcher\’s free market reforms and limiting of trade union power in the 1980s.

Union membership among British employees has halved since its peak in 1979, now standing at 6.7 million. Only around 15 percent of private sector workers are now union members compared to nearly 57 percent in the public sector.

Such figures may be part of the reason why TUC chief Brendan Barber and other moderates now stress the importance of winning "hearts and minds" over the cuts as well as talking of strikes.

Les Bayliss, a candidate to become the next leader of Britain\’s biggest union Unite, warned unions risk being painted as "the villains of the piece" instead of the government if they do go on strike.

He cited a long-running dispute between British Airways (BA) and cabin crew represented by Unite as "the perfect example" of his point.

"The BA cabin crew had a good case, they were being forced to accept a change in their contracts without agreement by a vicious and greedy employer and it was unacceptable," Bayliss said.

"But when we announced the 12-day strike over Christmas, the public and many of our members were so horrified they immediately lost sympathy for the victims."

Prime Minister David Cameron\’s coalition government will not give details of where the austerity measures will hit until a spending review on October 20.

Some job losses have already been announced in councils and hospitals around the country, while some 60,000 police jobs could go according to the Police Federation, effectively the union for officers.

The full austerity measures will not kick in until next April, though. Until then, some union chiefs compare the situation to a phoney war.

Recent opinion polls give a mixed picture of what the public currently thinks.

A Populus/Times newspaper poll Tuesday suggested three-quarters of people reject the speed and scale of the proposed cuts but said 59 percent were happy with the coalition.

But even if the public dislikes the cuts, the fear among some moderate trade unionists is that they could also dislike the unions\’ response to them, weakening their argument badly.


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