Trade unions prepare for an autumn of disruption

11 Sep 08
More than 270,000 civil servants will start a national strike ballot over pay next week, after senior government ministers failed to stem the momentum among public sector unions for widespread industrial unrest.

12 September 2008

More than 270,000 civil servants will start a national strike ballot over pay next week, after senior government ministers failed to stem the momentum among public sector unions for widespread industrial unrest.

A defiant Trades Union Congress in Brighton this week endorsed a resolution on co-ordinated industrial action and is now poised to turn it into reality.

In the ballot beginning on September 24, the Public and Commercial Services union will ask its members to back plans for a civil service-wide strike, followed by further action that will roll across Whitehall departments and agencies and last into the new year.

The civil servants will be followed by 250,000 members of the National Union of Teachers, who will vote on a series of national strikes for the first time since the 1980s. The teachers' ballot begins on October 6, with action that could close thousands of schools from mid-November.

NUT acting general secretary Christine Blower said: 'This is a campaign that becomes more relevant with each passing month. With food prices up 40%, utilities up over 30%, along with general inflation now running at 5%, teachers, particularly young teachers, are suffering.'

Other unions are also joining the pay battle. Strikes will be on the agenda at a special conference of further education lecturers in the University and College Union on September 20. Elsewhere, NHS members of Unite are discussing a 'menu' of options for industrial action at meetings around the country this month.

The executive of the National Association of Probation Officers has voted to ballot for a two-day strike in December if there is a failure to agree in pay talks with employers. Probation staff in Unison could follow suit if negotiations on September 16 do not produce a favourable result. Napo assistant general secretary Harry Fletcher said: 'At the moment the employers have tried to roll together progression increments and the cost of living, leaving staff with a 2% to 3% pay cut.'

The new wave of industrial unrest follows a TUC conference dominated by the issue of public sector pay, with union leaders unmoved by Chancellor Alistair Darling's attempts to argue for restraint – a mood that signals a rough ride for the government at the Labour Party conference later this month.

Darling told delegates: 'It would be so damaging for us to allow inflation to become entrenched, as it did in the past. That's why, in the private and public sectors, pay rises must be consistent with our inflation target.'

He added: 'We all remember the job losses that followed in the past once inflation takes a grip. Hundreds of thousands out of work, as happened in the 1980s and 1990s. We cannot allow that to happen.'

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said unions were 'underwhelmed' by the chancellor's performance. 'The speech was a missed opportunity for Darling and the government to close the gap between rich and poor, and address low pay in the public sector.'

The TUC resolved to co-ordinate industrial action 'among those unions in dispute over pay' and for a 'major national demonstration' against the pay cap.

An amendment from the Prison Officers Association calling for a general strike against the government's pay policy was rejected by delegates on a card vote.

Rising discontent among public sector workers was also illustrated by a survey released by Prospect, the union for civil service specialists and managers, ahead of the TUC conference. The online poll of 5,300 Prospect members found that more than half would not recommend a civil service career to others.

Lack of pay progression was the single biggest source of dissatisfaction, highlighted by 74% of respondents, while nearly half said poor pay and career opportunities had driven them to look for a job outside the civil service. In almost every area, dissatisfaction increased with length of service, the survey found.

Prospect deputy general secretary Dai Hudd said: 'The chaotic state of civil service pay is doing serious damage to the quality of science and technical advice carried out for government. This is a bleak and depressing account of what it is like to be a specialist civil servant in 2008.'


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