20 Dec 2010

Union leader warns of co-ordinated strike action

Health and Social Care Editor

There was fighting talk from the country’s largest trade union today when its newly elected leader warned of widespread and co-ordinated industrial action in the new year, writes Victoria Macdonald.

Unite leader warns of co-ordinated strikes (Reuters)

Writing in The Guardian, Len McCluskey, of Unite said union leaders would be meeting in January to discuss a “broad strike movement” to stop what he described as the Coalition’s “explicitly ideological” programme of spending cuts.

Mr McCluskey praised the student protests over tuition fees and said the trade unions had to work with them to build a wider anti-cuts movement.

But there was an immediate slapdown from the Labour leader Ed Miliband.

‘Wrong and unhelpful’

A spokesman said that Mr Miliband has warned about using ‘overblown rhetoric’ about strikes when he gave his conference speech.

“The language and tone of Len McCluskey’s comments is wrong and unhelpful, and Ed will be making that clear to Len when he meets him in the near future,” he said.

The language of Len McCluskey’s comments is wrong and unhelpful, and Ed will be making that clear. Labour leader Ed Miliband’s spokesman

The article was written ahead of a meeting today between trade unions and the Prime Minister at Downing Street. It had been described as an historic meeting because it was the first official one to be held for 25 years between a Conservative Prime Minister and the trade unionists, although David Cameron has met them unofficially.

In the end, Mr McCluskey was stuck in snow so the tone of the meeting was described as “business-like”.

Channel 4 News Who Knows Who on the people who have helped and influenced Unite boss Len McCluskey 

Those trade union leaders who did make it to Downing Street warned the Prime Minister that families were facing a “bleak midwinter” because of the Government’s cuts.

‘Highly negative consequences’

The TUC leader Brendan Barber said David Cameron had been told that his insistence on concentrating on deficit reduction rather than economic stimulation would have “highly negative consequences for the fabric of the welfare state and for jobs”. Mr Barber added that they were “socially divisive and economically challenging”.

The talks, which lasted for about an hour, were described by Mr Barber as wide-ranging. He said they had included discussions on the eonomy, pensions, and in particular public sector pensions.

Today we warned the Prime Minister that next year promises to be even bleaker for millions of families. TUC leader Brendan Barber

Outside Number 10, Mr Barber said: “Today we warned the Prime Minister that next year promises to be even bleaker for millions of families and their communities as the spending cuts bite hard.”

But Mr Barber’s tone was significantly milder than Mr McCluskey’s, and while he would not rule out strikes Mr Barber said they were a matter for discussion and ballots.

Downing Street later said that their position has always been that they do not want to see strike action. Instead they wanted to have a “constructive dialogue”.

It is believed that the unions had requested the meeting and it is likely Mr Cameron will have been keen to further gauge the mood of the unions in light of the protests by the students and the increasing tensions in light of pay freezes and cuts in public sector jobs and pensions.

More meetings

Both sides said they expected to now hold regular meetings – at least two or three times a year. Although the catering may have to be dealt with.

The union leaders were offered tea, coffee and mince pies but later described them as “deficit mince pies” because they were so small.

The departure of the officials from Downing Street also held up the arrival of reindeer, who were forced to wait in a horse box near the Treasury before they could be brought in to entertain children invited to the Number 10 Christmas Party.