April 2, 2013 10:04 pm

Unions split over call for general strike

Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, is urging other unions to join forces to stage a 24-hour general strike in what it privately admits would be an “explicitly political” attack against the government.

The threat comes as Number 10 on Tuesday ruled out speculation that it was to freeze or even cut the minimum wage, as it embarked on the largest contraction to date in the welfare state with the aim of making “work pay”.

Leaders from across the movement will discuss the idea of a general strike later this month at a meeting of the Trades Union Congress’s general council, with members divided over how to respond to the government’s attempts to curb public spending.

A general strike, involving both the public and private sectors, would be strongly opposed by moderates such as Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union, Prospect, representing civil service professionals, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. These unions believe it would be self-defeating.

But Unite, which has 1.5m members, has put forward a paper urging the TUC to “prepare for such mass industrial action”.

The idea has received cautious support from Unison, the main public sector union – but only as part of a broader campaign and if legal and practical hurdles can be overcome.

In the document, seen by the Financial Times, Unite argues that “such action is desirable” as it would not only put pressure on the government to change course but it would also enhance the credibility of the entire labour movement.

“It would be a landmark in our movement’s recovery of its morale, strength and capacity to play a leading part in a society crying out for credible and honourable leadership,” the paper says.

Unite holds back from proposing an early date and acknowledges it would take months to build support. Unions would have to win the backing of members in ballots. The union proposes a voluntary levy across the movement’s 6.5m-strong membership to pay the wages of “particular selected and identified” groups of workers striking on behalf of the TUC’s wider objectives.

Unite has struck a consistently anti-coalition tone under the leadership of Len McCluskey, who in late 2010 replaced joint leaders Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley. Mr McCluskey is in the middle of a leadership contest and faces a challenge from Jerry Hicks, a hard-left outsider who performed well in the last race for Unite’s leadership.

The strike debate comes as the coalition makes numerous tax and welfare changes. Unite says that, in striking, unions would be acting “on behalf of the community as a whole” against the cuts.

While some leaders fear a general strike would be unlawful, Unite cites the views of John Hendy QC and Professor Keith Ewing that it could be legal under European human rights legislation.

Cuts to the minimum wage, paid to almost 1m workers, would have prompted outrage from unions as it has never been cut since its introduction in 1999.

Downing Street said on Tuesday the business department was mulling over a report from the Low Pay Commission, which recommends the wage level, but later confirmed it would not freeze or reduce the rate, currently £6.19 an hour. The minimum wage is set each spring and any change comes into force in October.

Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler and Kiran Stacey

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