Trade unions are threatening a winter of mass strikes and a legal battles over proposed anti-strike laws, in the most militant showdown with the government since the 1970s.
Opening the delayed TUC conference in Brighton, outgoing general secretary Frances O’Grady claims working families are at breaking point and will lose £4,000 over the next three years because of inflation.
And claiming Liz Truss’s proposals for new anti-strike laws – to combat disruption of vital services like trains, schools, post and the NHS – would break international law and trade deals, she says defiantly: “See you in court.”
The tough talking from Ms O’Grady, who is stepping down ahead of becoming a Labour peer, follows warnings of co-ordinated strikes by the leaders of the UK’s two biggest unions this week.
Speaking on Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “I think there could be up to a million people on strike very, very soon. We could see multiple strikes this winter.”
And Unison general secretary Christina McAnea, whose union is already poised to ballot 400,000 members throughout the UK over walkouts, said the NHS could be hit by mass strike action this winter.
Several unions have tabled motions for the Brighton conference calling on the TUC to co-ordinate walkouts for maximum impact, stopping short of a general strike but marking a massive escalation of the current strikes by the rail union RMT and other unions.
The clash could potentially be the biggest confrontation between the union movement and the government since Edward Heath was Tory prime minister in the early 1970s and the “Winter of Discontent” when James Callaghan was Labour PM in the late ’70s.
The present Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is due to address the TUC on Thursday and is likely to face angry accusations of failing to support unions on strike and criticism of his ban on shadow ministers joining picket lines.
‘Read my lips: we’ll see you in court’
In her opening speech, Ms O’Grady will say: “We’re in the longest squeeze on real wages since Napoleonic times. The worst in modern history.
“And if ministers and employers keep hammering pay packets at the same rate, UK workers are on course to suffer two decades – 20 years – of lost living standards.
“Over the next three years alone real earnings are set to fall by another £4,000.
“We have got to stop the rot. Families cannot afford to tighten their belts anymore -they are at breaking point.”
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Warning the government not to attack the right to strike, she will say: “Just when the citizens of this country are in despair, when key workers’ kids are going to school with holes in their shoes, and young families are worried sick about taking on a mortgage – Liz Truss’s top priority is to make it harder for workers to win better pay.
“It’s a cynical effort to distract from the mess this government has caused.
“If ministers cross the road to pick a fight with us then we will meet them halfway.
“Today I give ministers notice. We’ve already taken legal counsel and we know you’re in breach of international law and trade deals that enshrine labour standards.
“So read my lips: we will see you in court.”
‘The Tories are now toxic’
And condemning the Conservatives’ economic strategy, she will say: “The PM may have dumped Kwasi Kwarteng. And is now hiding behind Jeremy Hunt.
“But she can’t duck this: We can’t trust her government with our economy.
“The Tories are now toxic. It’s time for change.”
Based on Bank of England forecasts, the TUC estimates real wages will not recover to their 2008 level until 2028. This will result in workers losing a further £4,000, on average, over the next three years as a result of inflation outstripping wage growth.
The TUC also calculates the average worker will have lost a total of £24,000 in real earnings since the 2008 financial crash as a result of pay not keeping pace with inflation.