Is UK facing a winter of discontent?


AT yesterday’s meeting with David Cameron, I raised the issue of public sector pensions. Mr Cameron said he was “happy” to look at a process for future discussion, but on the specific issue of the change from the RPI to CPI index for public sector pensions he said flatly it was non-negotiable.

It is always worth unions talking to the government of the day – for my union, representing civil servants, it is a necessity because the government is our employer.

Our first choice is always to negotiate and come to an agreement. But faced with a refusal to talk on an issue that represents a massive cut in the value of pensions and is of major concern to public sector workers, you have to question the intentions and the value of meetings like this one.

If Cameron’s government will not agree to meaningful negotiations, then all the cordiality and the fine words are for nothing, and have the effect of inviting industrial and legal action.

The key issue for us has always been, what must be done to oppose the government’s cuts and how to unite not just trade unions but other campaigners and communities.

The Unite union’s general secretary Len McCluskey called it right when he said the cuts are politically motivated and we have to oppose them all. We can not and will not allow ourselves to be drawn into accepting cuts to welfare, attacks on public services, mass job losses, and cuts to pay and pensions, with the occasional promise of tea and a cosy chat in Downing Street.

The coming year will undoubtedly see more protests on our streets and PCS is committed to playing its part to help build on what is already a promising movement against the cuts.

Mark Serwotka is general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union

THE annual reference to a winter of discontent is being rolled out again, but this year it appears to be gaining some traction. According to Len McCluskey the newly appointed leader of the UK's largest union, Unite, protesting students can act as a role model for workers fearing the consequences of government cuts to the public purse.

Recent surveys, including one of over 500 employers by DLA Piper, suggest there is a concern about the level of disruption in the next 12 months but what we are seeing here is a call to arms at a political level and across a number of different employers. This may be easier said than done.

The first thing to keep in mind is the vast difference between “protest” and “strike” action. Strikes are a breach of contract for employees and a civil wrong by trade unions, both of which could lead to serious employment and financial consequence unless excused by regulations around balloting and notification.

The premise for any form of industrial action is that it arises from a genuine trade dispute. To gain exemption from legal action any union(s) seeking to co-ordinate strikes across various employers will have to show “cause”, not in general but specific to their members with their employer. Whilst this threshold is capable of being met against a backdrop of redundancies, unions will need to be careful to pay attention to the detail and the “real reason” for the dispute. “Political” strikes are not legal under UK law and could expose unions to damages claims or employees to action for breach of contract.

Unless the unions fund (it is not cheap) and organise protected strike action and negotiate the complexity of the law, what are they left with? Protest? All well and good and possibly quite effective, but workers are simply not as flexible as students when it comes to organising the time to do so. Neither do students suffer deductions in pay and disruption to benefits as a consequence of their actions. Employers will be well advised to communicate with workers their policy relating to time off and absence if there is a groundswell of threatened protest and action.

The second key issue to bear in mind is that public sector disputes are often incapable of being resolved between trade union and employee on one side and the employer on the other. Why? Because the employer is subject to a funding decision and process that is different from the private sector. The “real” dispute is with the funder: the government. The unions cannot negotiate with the real decision makers. This brings us back to the distinction between protest and lawful and protected industrial action and the truth is that one is far easier to organise than the other, and with far fewer consequences for all those involved.

David Bradley is a partner and head of employment law at DLA Piper LLP