Unions – out of touch or the workers’ last bastion?
Talking point: Unions call it the fight of their lives but – it will mean strikesnot seen for 30 years
AS BRITAIN'S biggest unions announced strike ballots, Unison's general secretary, Dave Prentis, told the TUC Congress in London that trades unionists are involved in the "fight of our lives". Britain now faces the prospect of mass industrial action on a scale not seen in years.
Winter of discontent
The strikes will be the biggest since the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79 when rubbish went uncollected and bodies unburied, says Christopher Hope in the Daily Telegraph. He says that the Telegraph has learned of secret plans mapping out "blocks" of strikes across the country running in "target areas" for two to three days at a time.
What else can we do, ask unions
We have no choice, says Mark Serwotka, of the Public and Commercial Services Union says, also in the Telegraph. The government refuses to negotiate on the main three issues facing millions of workers: paying more and working longer for a lower pension.
Ultimately, says Serwotka, the coalition "wants to privatise more of the public sector than even Thatcher fantasised about". But "millions of public sector workers are not going to be made scapegoats for a crisis they did not cause or conduits for more profit-making by a small elite".
Unions are political dinosaurs
With tedious predictability, the TUC conference provided a platform for Britain's "gloriously antediluvian union leaders to roar bellicose threats", says the Daily Mail Comment blog. These "commissars of the Left" (many on 100k plus salaries) have urged delegates to undertake civil disobedience in protest at the government's modest changes to public sector pensions.
But what hope is there when Boris Johnson caves into pay demands by Tube workers, and Ed Miliband can only caution against industrial action taken while negotiations over pensions are 'going on'? "Yes, the union leaders are dinosaurs. But aren't our politicians donkeys."
Unions might save us
The unions have to do something, says Mehdi Hasan in the Guardian. The chancellor's refusal to budge on the austerity programme, in the belief that there will be private sector-led recovery, is "driving the UK economy off a cliff".
Far from distancing himself from the unions, now is the time for Miliband to join them. We urgently need a more radical and stimulative alternative to cuts, as many economic experts agree. If Miliband and the Labour party cannot win the argument against austerity in parliament, then the union movement "will have to act as our last line of defence".
But the sums don't add up
Are the unions' pension demands affordable? asks Polly Curtis in the Guardian. While the absolute bill for public sector pensions is set to rise over the next 50 years, it is predicted to fall as a proportion of GDP. Unions have seized on this point, claiming that it "demolishes the government's argument" that public sector pensions are unaffordable.
But the sustainable costs argument assumes that public sector workers will work longer and pay more into them – the thing the unions are opposing. The unions should acknowledge this point, writes Curtis.
Yes, these are dark economic times, says an editorial in the Telegraph. With worrying unemployment rises and the eurozone in turmoil, it seems too much to ask union leaders to "spell out the harsh realities of life to their members". The fact is: the country can no longer afford to meet public sector pension costs. "Striking will change nothing." ·
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