Mood music about a winter of strikes has become as predictable an autumn occurrence as the first fall of leaves: but will it happen?

Today’s Daily Mail gives you a flavour of the language: Britain could be “on the brink of the first general strike since 1926,” it says.

The annual TUC has become a kind of Groundhog Day where union officials threaten to take action against the coalition’s austerity measures without ever coming remotely close to bringing the country to its knees, despite such warnings as the one in today’s Mail that “Vital services would be wiped out.”

The mood here in Brighton is not one of radical workers rising up against the Tory-led government, however. A glum wind was blowing off the grey sea, this morning, which suited the general sense of unease and apprehension rather than revolution.

In reality there are at least two TUC proposals which could easily be confused.

One of them, passed this morning, said that co-ordinated action is necessary and should be considered in the future. It is too vague to lead to the kind of mass protest that some might fear (or conversely hope for).

A second, more focused call (from the Prison Officers Association) asks comrades to continue to “lead from the front against the uncaring government with a coalition of resistance” which could involve “far-reaching campaigns, including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike.” As Bob Crow put it yesterday: they can’t put us in jail as the prison officers will also be on strike. 

The POA proposal was discussed this morning by the TUC general council, which was a “surreal” conversation according to NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet; not least because of the confusion as to what the words actually meant.

The POA describe the motion as the chance for the union movement to at least give itself the “ultimate weapon in our armoury” for the future: in reality officials know that it may not even be legal. “If it’s not achievable….at least we can hold our heads up high and say we considered it,” said the union general secretary.

Even if it is approved, the question for the brothers is this: what next?

The Public and Commercial Services union, which is one of the more radical, wants action this autumn beyond a demonstration on October 20. Two teaching unions have also announced limited action in the last week of September.

But bigger unions are still holding their fire: Unison and the GMB (who are now considering a merger to create a super-union to eclipse Unite) are planning strike ballots in the new year if the freeze on public sector pay does not lift. But the key moment for that will not be until the spring, when pay deals in health and local government are due.

The real crunch time for the unions, however, is likely to come in just over a year’s time, when the coalition sits down to revisit departmental spending plans in its second CSR (comprehensive spending review).

More pain is likely through higher taxes, spending cuts and probably a further erosion of public sector workers’ pay or pensions or both. That is the point when the unions’ ability to compromise will be tested as never before.

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