Three of the UK’s biggest public sector unions Unite, Unison, and the GMB gave notice today in the closing hours of this year’s TUC Congress that they will be balloting members to hold a day of action (or rather inaction) on November 30th.
The one day strike could well be the most widespread industrial dispute since the General Strike in 1926. It will mark the opening of a sustained campaign by the unions to thwart the Coalition’s plans to limit the pension benefits of its members.
Cabinet minister Francis Maude is charged with what looks an impossible brief – to convince public sector workers that they work longer until retirement, pay more into their pensions, and collect poorer benefits at the end of their working lives.
But it is claimed demographics have made the growing size of the state sector pension bill unsustainable so something has to give.
In the first instance public sympathy will be with the fire fighters and care workers but patience will soon wear thin when, for example, parents have to regularly stay home with their children because the schools are closed.
The Government hopes that against the tough economic background union members may not have the stomach for a fight that will hit their pay packets. It is counting on general support in the population because it believes there is an antipathy towards the public sector.
This may be so but opinion could turn on the Coalition if it is considered to be mishandling negotiations. Fractures may occur if the right wing of the Tory party sees David Cameron making concessions, while LibDem MPs will be mightily uncomfortable if events turn nasty in the streets.
The situation is a potential minefield too for Labour leader Ed Miliband. He was booed this week during his Congress speech condemning industrial action earlier this year.
Somehow he must distance his party from its union paymasters; avoid saying the obvious (e.g he favours negotiation above confrontation); and, if he can, work towards a solution - or otherwise keep quiet.
He could start by explaining to public sector workers that they are going to have to face up to conditions of employment accepted, albeit unwillingly, by their private sector brothers and sisters long ago.
The contract you sign at the beginning of your employment is not set in stone and can be changed by your employer. It’s not fair – more so now than ever when bankers who are responsible for our financial mess are still collecting fat bonuses.
The able trade union leader gets the best deal available for his or her members and this may be require use of the strike weapon where appropriate but not to the extent of over-kill.