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Unions threaten mass strikes against cuts

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 September 2010

Britain's trade unions are gathering in Manchester today for the annual TUC congress with the threat of the biggest mass strikes by public sector workers since the poll tax riots of 1990. The TUC tells Channel 4 News there will be a "huge public reaction and real pressure on the government".

Poll tax riots of the 1990s: TUC warns of mass public riots in response to government's budget cuts (Image: Getty)

Speaking last night, on the eve of the Trades Union Congress's (TUC) first meeting since the coalition government came to power, general secretary Brendan Barber said the budget cuts have only just started to bite.

He told Channel 4 News: "I'm convinced that as the reality of those cuts becomes clear there will be a huge public reaction and real pressure on the government to change course."

"When their full extent becomes clear, I know the country will join with us in saying no to policies of such eye-wateringly unfairness," he said.

Mr Barber's rallying cry comes as the government remains locked in talks over where the axe should fall, as Chancellor George Osborne finalises his spending review due to be revealed on 20 October.

The TUC's annual congress starts today in Manchester, kicking off plans for a wave of protests to government cuts including a rally and lobby of parliament the day before Mr Osborne's spending review is unveiled.

Mr Barber kicked off the conference season in a 10.30am speech this morning, suggesting coordinated strike action under the TUC, the possibility of which was also aired by Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka at the civil servants' union PCS - the latter of whom said he would be planning joint industrial action across the public sector if his pleas fall on deaf ears.

Mr Crow meanwhile said: "If your job is going to be attacked then you’ve got two options really: sit back or stand up and fight."

More than 200,000 public sector jobs have already been axed or are now on the line since the massive spending cuts began, research from GMB union showed on Sunday.

Mr Osborne faced fresh criticism over welfare cuts after it emerged he wanted to slash at least £2.5bn from the budget for long-term sickness benefits.

In a letter to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith leaked to The Observer, the Chancellor set out the vast reductions to the Employment and Support Allowance.

It was seized on by Labour as evidence that the government planned "vicious cuts on the poorest" as part of its efforts to massively cut public spending to tackle the UK's record deficit.

Indeed, the TUC’s research, carried out by economists Howard Reed and Tim Horton, claims that the UK’s poorest 10 per cent will be hit 13 times harder by the cuts than the richest 10 per cent in the year 2012-13.

The report supports earlier research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that claimed Mr Osborne's Budget was in fact generally "regressive", hitting the poorest the hardest in the long term.

The TUC said single parents and pensioners will bare the brunt of the cuts, which will also serve to deepen the north-south divide in England. 

Mr Barber said: "This is the classic doublethink. They might say progressive, but these cuts will make the poll tax look as if it was dreamed up by Robin Hood."

Each day it becomes clearer that there are alternative ways to drive down the deficit, he added, warning that the cuts were putting the economic recovery at risk.

"The poll tax was defeated when the decent majority said that it offended the deep sense of fairness that we share in this country across party divides," he said.

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Labour leadership contender Ed Miliband - who is widely supported by the trade unions - said the unions were "absolutely right" to show concern.

"I don't think what the trade unions are saying they are against any cuts in any circumstances but they like me are very, very concerned about the impact they are going to have not just on their members but on the users of their services," Mr Miliband said.

The government has repeatedly rejected claims that its budget is regressive, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg previously dismissing the IFS analysis.

However, Chris Goulden of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation told Channel 4 News that the government's response to the IFS has "died away without being resolved".

Mr Goulden said the coalition has not explained exactly what it means by "progressive" - other than by stating the fact that stimulating economic growth is progressive as it creates jobs.

This avoids the issue of the impact of growth on equality, he said.

"Of course it's a truism that public spending is directly mainly towards the lower end, and the only alternative is private spending; education and housing. We need to see more about the positives of the savings made (by the government) - we need to see the positives of well-paid, secure jobs."

Meanwhile, a Treasury spokesman told Channel 4 News on Sunday that the TUC’s report was "posturing", adding: "The TUC fails to point out that the vast majority of the cuts were already planned (by the previous government)."

He added: "Fairness is at the heart of the government's approach to the spending review, and it is commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in society. That's why the government has protected the NHS, taken over 800,000 people out of tax and is dealing with the deficit so we don't unfairly burden future generations with debt.”

The TUC's report finds that the poorest 10 per cent lose services equivalent to more than 20 per cent of their household income, under the cuts. A pensioner couple would suffer cuts equivalent to 16.2 per cent of their income, while an affluent family with children suffer cuts of 4.2 per cent. 

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