24 Nov 2010

Unite boss McCluskey warns of ‘inevitable’ strikes

Ken McCluskey, new leader of the country’s biggest union, pledges to lead the fight against the coalition government’s cuts – and refuses to rule out the possibility of a general strike.

Ken McCluskey, who was elected general secretary of Unite the union at the weekend

Len McCluskey, whose election as General Secretary of Unite was announced at the weekend, told journalists today that “the very fabric of our society is being dismantled (…) and we have a duty to lead a resistance against this attack. It is slaughter by stealth.”

He said: “Unite will support any of its members that wish to take industrial action to save the 1.5 million jobs minimum that are currently threatened, both in the public and private sector.”

He believed the TUC had to “coordinate the anger that is now building up against what the government is doing”.

Channel 4 News Political Correspondent Cathy Newman writes that Mr McCluskey has “put the coalition government on notice of a wave of industrial action in the spring.

“He spoke of an ‘incredible sense of anger’ in the country about the spending cuts, and wouldn’t rule out a general strike – a co-ordinated programme of strike action like that planned in Portugal.”

United will support any of its members that wish to take industrial action to save the 1.5 million jobs currently threatened. Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary

United’s new General Secretary stressed that it was not his objective to bring down the government, but he evoked “the poll tax spirit” and claimed that “when people come together, anything is possible”.

Although Unite backed Ed Miliband in his successful campaign to become leader of the Labour Party, Mr McCluskey stated that Labour had lost touch with ordinary people in recent years.

“I hope that Ed Miliband realises he needs to make certain he created a party with the type of policies to reconnect to ordinary people,” he said.

The Unite leader courted controversy during Labour’s conference in September when he was seen to shout “Rubbish!” in response to Mr Miliband’s assertion that the party would have “no truck” with irresponsible strike action.

Does Len McCluskey herald a new era of industrial strife?
Willie Walsh and the British Airways board may find a Unite led by Len McCluskey at least as intractable as it was under Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley.

In his previous role, as assistant general secretary, he was responsible for Unite's industrial strategy. And the 61-year-old Liverpudlian is on record as saying "My experience is there is no such thing as an irresponsible strike. Workers take strike action because they genuinely feel there is nothing else they can do."

McCluskey's life as a union activist goes back to his time in Liverpool working for the Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company, which he joined as a teenager in the sixties. His first appointment as an officer with the Transport and General Workers Union came in 1979.

He has admitted that in the turbulent 1980s he supported the Militant Tendency in Liverpool - although he says he never became a member. Militant used "entryist" tactics to infiltrate the Labour party, and its most prominent spokesman, Derek Hatton, rose to become deputy leader of the Liverpool City Council in 1983.

Read more from Who Knows Who - Len McCluskey: Unite and fight?

In an interview with Cathy Newman, Mr McCluskey said it was “understandable” that demonstrations about tuitioin fee rises had descended into violence, and described the tuition fee revolt two weeks ago as “fantastic”.

Mr McCluskey went on to warn journalists that he would oppose any attempt to break the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions. “The Labour Party is our party, and if anyone wants to break the link, then we will oppose that.”

Looking ahead to the festive period, he predicted that “Britain’s first Cameron Christmas is going to be a time of bleak uncertainty for millions of people.”

Asked if there could be a BA strike over Christmas, Mr McCluskey joked: ‘Watch this space. Don’t go on holiday!’

In a reference to Lord Young, who resigned last week after claiming that most people had “never had it so good”, Mr McCluskey announced: “For ordinary people, this is not a good recession, as some Tory peers would have it, but a miserable and frightening time.”

He moved to dim hopes of a resolution to year-long dispute between British Airways and its cabin crew, which is so far thought to have cost BA around £150m.

Earlier this month Unite suspended plans to ballot staff on the company’s latest proposals. And today, when asked if there could be a strike over Christmas, Mr McCluskey joked: “Watch this space. Don’t go on holiday!”

Cathy Newman writes: “Ministers are under no illusion that when the cuts really begin to bit in the new year, relations with the unions will get nasty. And on the evidence of his fiery performance this morning, ‘red’ Len McCluskey isn’t about to calm things down.”