LONDON — Len McCluskey has said he is prepared to break the law over the government’s lack of action on the public sector pay cap, and that those who did so would be like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi.
The leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, said that a coordinated strike was “very much on the cards” and that he was ready to defy the law which says strike action needs to be approved by a ballot with a turnout of over 50%.
This followed the government’s decision to lift the 1% pay cap for police and prison officers was fiercely criticised for being a real-term pay cut as it was below inflation.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the TUC conference on Tuesday that the Conservatives were trying to “divide and rule, to play one sector off against another.”
McCluskey said: “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. If the government has pushed us outside the law, they will have to stand the consequences.”
“The reality is that the law is wrong and it has to be resisted. I dare say if you’d have been interviewing Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi or the suffragettes you’d be telling them that they were breaking the law,” he continued.
The cabinet agreed on Tuesday that police officers would receive a 2% pay rise for 2017/18, of which half of which is a one-off bonus, and prison officers an average 1.7% rise. The rate of inflation is 2.9% meaning these pay rises would be real-terms pay cuts.
The Prison Officers’ Association rejected the offer and is planning to coordinate a strike ballot alongside the Public and Commercial Services Union.
Mark Serkwotka, the PCS boss told the Guardian newspaper that the government’s proposal was a “pile of crap” and said: “The law is wrong, but our union’s response really does depend on the response we get from our own indicative ballot for industrial action from our members.”
Responding to the comments, a Downing Street source said: “This is a pay award not a negotiation,”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, refused to say whether he backed illegal strike action four times. He said: “We support trade unions and the campaigns of people to get the public sector pay cap scrapped. It’s for the trade unions to decide what actions they take.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Burgon added: “In relation to the question of turnouts in strike ballots, what we have always been supportive of is encouraging as many people to vote as possible. What a Labour government would do would be to repeal the Trade Union Act which is seeking to stop trade unions from taking action to stop ordinary people … from suffering a 14% pay cut in real terms.”
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said: “Nurses, teachers and other public sector workers are set to be hundreds of pounds worse off in real terms as a result of rising inflation. Unless urgent action is taken, the recruitment crisis in nursing and teaching will only get worse.”
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