UK Politics

Unions prepare to take on coalition

Protesters at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire in 2009
Image caption Will the spectre of cuts galvanise the unions?

The Trades Union Congress is set for one of its most impassioned get-togethers in years.

The change from a Labour to a Conservative-Lib Dem government has left many, particularly those working in the public sector, fearful for their futures.

It has also granted delegates more licence to go on the attack, now that union-backed Labour is out of power.

And around 600 delegates gathering in Manchester will be keen to get their message across ahead of the comprehensive spending review on 20 October.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has already accused the government of "making struggling families bear the cost of the recession, while the rich have been let off".

'Detailed plan'

Among the issues for debate, the Usdaw union, which represents many different trades and professions, is accusing the coalition of getting ready to increase poverty by means-testing child benefit.

It is urging the TUC to mount a "vigorous" campaign, while the Association of Teachers and Lecturers wants the government to publish a "detailed plan" on how it will meet its target of ending child poverty by 2020.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is equally incensed, this time about the welfare state.

It claims that June's emergency Budget has already hit the poor by capping housing benefit, freezing child benefit and cutting tax credits.

The PCS is promising to "mobilise an ongoing broad-based campaign to defend the welfare state".

Unite, the UK's biggest union, accuses the coalition of doing too little to support the recovery by business from the worst recession in decades.

In contrast to the messages of retrenchment coming from government, it wants ministers to use the state's spending power to help secure industrial jobs.

On the same theme, the Community union condemns the decision to reverse the £80m loan to the Sheffield Forgemasters company, which was agreed under Labour.

Pro-Labour?

The public sector pay freeze and pension changes are also set to cause fury in Manchester, with several unions complaining about these issues.

So, the tone is avowedly anti-coalition, but is it pro-Labour?

Labour's five leadership candidates will attend a hustings in Manchester, with ballots already sent out and voting well under way.

As members of Labour-affiliated unions make up a large section of their electorate, they will be attempting to make the right noises, with delegates keen to hear their views on workers' rights and the future of frontline services.

Yet, with public finances tight and the outside world watching, will Diane Abbott, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and David and Ed Miliband be able to go as far to the left in their promises as delegates want?

The reaction will at least give some gauge of opinion among the union members, who make up almost a third of the Labour franchise.

Meanwhile, several motions are on the TUC agenda condemning companies' use of "anti-union legislation" and legal small print to suppress strike plans.

Another calls for banks to be prevented from the "short-term" decision-making which precipitated the financial crisis.

They are - and are being promoted as - big themes for difficult times.

The coalition is not sending a senior figure to the congress - something of a throwback to pre-Tony Blair times.

But the Lib Dem Business Secretary, Vince Cable, a one-time Labour man himself, has told the New Statesman magazine: "This government is not looking for conflict... I much prefer dialogue to confrontation and my door is open to trade union representatives who wish to talk to me."

He may want "jaw, jaw", but will he and his colleagues be able to persuade the unions there is no need for "war, war"?

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites