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Taking advantage of weak strike laws, union leaders see Cameron as more of a Heath than a Thatcher, who will give ground on public sector pensions

By Tim Montgomerie
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Strike The Coalition was repeatedly warned that trade union laws needed to be modernised. An important report from Policy Exchange, interventions from industry leaders and Boris Johnson, and a massive majority of Tory members concluded that Britain needed to introduce laws that would mean a majority of a union's membership had to vote for strike action in order for it to be lawful. By eight-to-one Tory members also supported "a no strike deal in essential public services in return for compulsory arbitration". Most of us felt these laws were urgent if Britain was to be protected from the powerful public sector unions who are digging in deep to protect the privileges of their members.

The extent of public sector privilege is hotly debated. An expert on BBC Radio 4 yesterday questioned Policy Exchange's estimate that the pay premium for public sector workers was something between 24% and 43% but did admit that there was a premium and equalled about 12%. That's still significant and it's vital that in the interests of deficit reduction and fairness that public sector workers share some of the austerity that has already been borne by the private sector. I emphasise some because public sector workers will still be much better rewarded than their private sector equivalents even if the Coalition's pension reforms (summarised here) are introduced in full.

The public sector unions are not willing to play fair, however, and organised strike ballots to oppose reforms to pensions. These reforms weren't the work of George Osborne, David Cameron or even Vince Cable and Nick Clegg. They had been drawn up by John Hutton, the former Labour Cabinet minister. Yesterday we had the result of a strike ballot organised by the Public and Commercial Services Union and just one-in-five voted for action (61.1% voted 'yes' but only 32.4% turned out to vote). This weak support for action didn't stop the General Secretary of the PCS, Mark Serwotka, threatening to bring key public services to a halt. "Schools will be shut," he told the BBC, "jobcentres will be closed, driving licences won't be issued, queues will form at ports and airports." The National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have also voted overwhelmingly for strike action but, again, on turnouts of well below 50%.

Maude Francis June 2011 In interviews yesterday (WATCH) Francis Maude said it was "totally irresponsible" and "totally premature" for the PCS to vote for strike action when talks with the government were still in process. The Cabinet Office minister accused Mr Serwotka of boasting about bringing services for a vulnerable people to a halt. The prospect of disruption, a combative Mr Maude said, appeared to give the union leader "great pleasure". He appealed to public servants to wait for the conclusion of talks and to continue working despite the militancy of union leaders. He said the government had contingency plans in place that would minimise disruption to schools and other essential public services.

The confrontation with the trade unions comes at a difficult time for the Coalition. Ideally ministers would want to enter negotiations looking strong but a succession of policy u-turns has emboldened the unions. One Labour MP said that Cameron was looking more like Heath than Thatcher; "The NHS reforms showed that he'll buckle if you push hard enough."

Screen shot 2011-06-16 at 04.26.59
For copyright reasons I'm not risking publishing the whole cartoon but dive behind the Times paywall for a brilliant Peter Brookes drawing of Eric Pickles, David Cameron, Andrew Lansley and Ken Clarke marching in flip flops.


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