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UK public sector unions threaten strikes over wage cap

The head of the UK's biggest union says strikes in the public sector are "on the cards." The government has stood firm on its pay cap, but rising inflation and political weakness are undercutting its austerity policies.

Len McCluskey (above, C), the General Secretary of the 1.4 million-strong Unite union, told BBC radio on Tuesday he would be prepared to break the law on industrial action.

"In terms of the concept of a coordinated public service workers' action, yes I think that's very likely and very much on the cards," McCluskey said in the interview.

Speaking earlier at the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference, he said the need to always act inside the law had been removed from the union's rule book. "We took that out because we know that if the bosses and the privileged elite want to push us outside the law, so be it. It won't stop us standing up,” he said.

"If they haven't managed to hit an artificial threshold that this government have foolishly put onto the statute books then I will stand by our members, and we'll all live, including the government [...] with the consequences of that," he told the BBC.

The UK passed tough laws in 2016 requiring a ballot turnout of over 50 percent of union members for a strike to be legal, with even tighter restrictions for important public sector jobs.

McCluskey claimed Unite has put aside 36 million pounds (40 million euros, $48 million) in case it gets involved in lengthy disputes.

Watch video 26:04

Len McCluskey on Conflict Zone

A test for Labour

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses the TUC conference in Brighton, southern England, later on Tuesday and is expected to support breaking the law to challenge the government over the public sector pay cap.

Labour has said it will force a House of Commons vote on Wednesday on scrapping the 1-percent cap for National Health Service (NHS) workers. Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth called on Conservative MPs to join Labour to back moves to end the "unfair” cap for healthcare staff.

Wider union support unsure

Other unions have taken a more cautious line, with Frances O'Grady, the TUC general secretary, saying a general strike would be a "last resort."

"I'm very clear that people are angry and if we don't get that pay rise then the TUC is certainly ready to assist our unions and coordinate as we always do," O'Grady said.

British Prime Minister Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May

Austerity to lose its bite

This would be the first time the government has relaxed the curbs, which froze pay for two years in 2010 and limited subsequent annual growth to 1 percent, as part of the government's austerity program introduced in 2010.

It is predicated on cutting the UK's public sector deficit and at the same time curbing inflationary tendencies in the economy.

Until earlier this year, such tendencies were largely absent, although rises in prices in 2017 — added to calls for an end to austerity policies —  have undercut PM Theresa May's rationale for maintaining the pay freeze.

Her position within her own party and cabinet, meanwhile, has been enfeebled by a poor showing in the June election that saw her ruling Conservative party's majority in parliament radically cut.

This also galvanized opponents within her own party, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Michael Gove, who have both suggested the cap should be eased, while Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said ministers should "hold our nerve” on spending restraint.

Protesters march down Whitehall against private companies' involvement in the NHS in central London, March 2017

Protesters march down Whitehall against private companies' involvement in the NHS in central London, March 2017

Underpaid and overworked

Labour said recently that regular police officers are over 6,000 pounds (6,600 euros) a year worse off in real terms compared to 2010 when the Conservatives came to power.

Teachers in England and Scotland earned less in real terms in 2015 than a decade before, according to an annual report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The international monitoring report on education, published each year by the OECD, shows that for teachers in England, with 15 years experience, pay had fallen by 12 percent between 2005 and 2015, when inflation had been taken into account.

The UK's National Audit Office, meanwhile, said recently that schools are struggling to appoint new teachers.

Some more equal than others

There has been speculation the government will award police and prison officers increases above 1 percent this week.

Watch video 26:01

Are Theresa May's days numbered?

jbh/hg (Reuters, AFP)

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