UK union warns of massive strikes

2011-06-18 13:46
London - The leader of Britain's biggest public sector union has threatened to unleash the biggest wave of strikes in nearly 100 years to force the government to back down on planned pension reforms and deep spending cuts.

The coalition government says it must push ahead with tackling a record peacetime budget deficit or risk suffering a debt crisis similar to those seen in Greece and Ireland.

It expects about 330 000 public jobs to go as it cuts spending by £81bn over the next four years.

Dave Prentis, who as head of Unison represents 1.4m public workers, said the state sector's share of the spending cuts was too big and he warned of indefinite rolling strikes to make the government soften its austerity programme.

"It will be the biggest since the general strike," Prentis said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper on Saturday. More than three million workers took part in the 1926 general strike in support of the coal miners' ultimately failed attempt to resist wage cuts.

Railways, docks, steelworks and many other industries were disrupted during the nine-day strike. However, its impact was blunted by months of government planning and the use of thousands of police and soldiers to keep the country moving.

Current anger over the public spending cuts is growing and union members were determined to keep up pressure on the government, Prentis added. The next wave of strikes will be more successful than the long-running and sometimes violent miners' strikes in 1984-85 that ended in victory for Margaret Thatcher, Conservative prime minister at the time, he said.

"It won't be the miners' strike," Prentis told the Guardian. "We are going to win."

Trades Union Congress leader Brendan Barber said he and Prentis both still wanted to resolve the dispute through talks with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

About 750 000 workers including teachers and job centre staff have already said they will stage coordinated action this month in what would be Britain's worst stoppages for decades.

Finance minister George Osborne has repeatedly said the country must cut spending and raise taxes if it wants to retain the confidence of lenders and the money markets.

While students clashed with police during demonstrations over higher tuition fees late last year, Britain has avoided the violent demonstrations against austerity measures seen in other European countries.

However, pressure is growing on many British workers from a combination of weak economic growth, higher taxes, muted wage rises and inflation running at 4.5%, more than double the central bank's target.

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