British trade union leaders promise strikes over government policies

12:46, November 28, 2010      

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The leader of one of Britain's larger trade unions promised on Saturday strike action against government policies.

"Strikes are inevitable -- mass strikes are the best way," said Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public Sector and Commercial Services Union (PCSU), at meeting of protesters in central London called to organize protests against the government's austerity budget nationally. "We need more demonstrations, more marches."

Industrial relations in Britain have been calm over the past 20 years with very few days last to strikes. However unions are facing job losses among their members as the coalition government implements the most drastic budget cuts since the Second World War.

Already, violence at public demonstrations over the past three weeks has led to the country's top police officer, Metropolitan police commissioner Paul Stephenson to say Wednesday that the " likelihood is for more disorder on our streets", adding "we have been going through a period where we have not seen that sort of violent disorder. Regrettably, the game has changed and we must act."

The newly-elected leader of Britain's largest union Unite, Len McCluskey, told the protest meeting organized by the Coalition of Resistance "these government cuts are morally wrong, and economically dangerous. This resistance against the cuts is only the beginning. It is time to stand up and fight back."

McCluskey, in his first public speech since being elected leader of the 2-million-strong union, said: "The media have been drip-feeding us with the sinister mantra that there is no alternative to cuts. Trying to tell us there is nothing we can do about it, debilitating us and trying to divide public sector workers from private sector workers."

The seven-month-old coalition government, formed by the right- wing Conservative party and the left-of-center Liberal Democrat party in the wake of the inconclusive May general election that saw no party gain enough support to form a stable government by itself, has moved swiftly to publish radical reforms in welfare, education, health, and higher education that are part of a broader package to lop 81 billion pounds (about 126 billion U.S. dollars) off government spending in the next four years.

This will cost at least 490,000 public sector jobs, according to the government, which says it has no choice but to cut public services, budgets, and jobs quickly and deeply in a bid to tackle a near-record public spending deficit of 156 billion pounds for 2010-11.

Critics say no, and anger at government policies has surfaced since the announcement of the 81-billion-pounds-worth of cuts just over a month ago.

Plans for the near tripling of tuition fees for students at universities, part of the government's reforms, brought 50,000 students to the streets of London on November 10, and tens of thousands of students and schoolchildren, some as young as 14, in protests across the country earlier this week.

Both events saw isolated acts of violence, with the Conservative party headquarters broken into and occupied in the first demonstration, with windows smashed and a fire extinguisher thrown from a height of 20 meters just missing police officers.

In protests this week in central London, within 100 meters of the prime minister's residence in Downing Street, thousands of students and schoolchildren were held in a restricted area by police and vandalized a police van and street furniture, prompting condemnation by the police of criminal behavior, and by protesters of police heavy-handedness.

John McDonnell, a lawmaker and leading member of the main opposition Labor party who ran for its leadership over the summer, spoke at the meeting Saturday, and signaled his support for the actions of students and protesters arrested on both demonstrations. He said: "You are not the criminals, the real criminals are the ones who are attacking our education system."

Bob Crowe, the leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, whose member are set to disrupt travel for 3 million London commuters with a 24-hour strike over job cuts also backed the protesters, and defended the damage done. "A few windows got smashed -- that might create a bit of employment for those people in the glazing trade. However if we just marched around with placards there would be no coverage whatsoever."

He pointed to the historic example of early trade unionists and said: "It's only when they started throwing bricks through windows that people began to take notice."

Critics and opponents of government policies are keen to exploit the mood of disaffection among some students and broaden it into a wider protest against government policies by workers and community groups.

Protest leaders have called on students to take to the streets once more on Tuesday, and the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella organization for Britain's trade unions, is organizing a mass demonstration for late March.



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