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Could the power of the Unions be returning?

The Unions in the UK have been regarded as a spent force since the days of Margaret Thatcher. But with the country still reeling from an economic recession, the uncertainties of a coalition government at the helm and the sweeping changes implemented by the recent Spending Review, the Unions are garnering themselves up for a possible Ďwinter of discontentí this year.

Using a little known law to challenge the government.

Spurred on by the activities of Unions across Europe, the British Union movement is using a little known and untested law that could allow them to organise mass industrial action in the same style seen recently in Greece and France. At the TUC conference in September calls went out to back a motion that would support and co-ordinate campaigns and joint union industrial action as a direct response to what they see as an attack on jobs, pensions, pay and public services.

The government is nervous. Despite falling numbers, the Unions still carry a lot of clout when it comes to challenging legislation that could be seen to affect the public sector in particular. There are still seven million trade union members in the UK, and almost two thirds of those work in the public sector.

Rallying point for industrial action.

The concern is that the Spending Review could act as a rallying point for what has until recently been a disorganised group of unions all fighting their own agendas. But a clause in the Trade Union Labour Relations Act (1992) could provide a strong case for union solidarity and put the proposed public sector cuts at risk. Section 228A allows a single ballot of union members with any number of employers across the country, provided that the union is in dispute with all of the employers concerned. According to the legislation it doesnít even have to be the same dispute. So public sector union workers could be united under a single clause that covers a multitude of legitative sins.

What this means for public sector employees remains to be seen, whether they are a member of a union or not. Logistically it could be very difficult to organise such a large ballot of so many different members of different unions. But if successful, it could quite easily lead to a 21st Century Ďwinter of discontentí that would affect all layers of society.

Fighting spirit.

But with the fear factor already ramped up to 11 and everyone nervous of losing their jobs, is the fighting spirit there to take on the government in a 1970ís style battle between the state and the Unions? A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests that after pay cuts and reductions in working hours, many workers may quickly lose sympathy for the Unionís cause, particularly if strikes started to disrupt essential services.

While the mood may generally be one of belligerent defiance against the cuts, the ground level response may be that workers would rather keep their heads below the parapets and avoid risking their jobs and their livelihoods any further by participating in industrial action. The Unions still have the power to motivate sections of the workforce into industrial action to protect their membersí interests, but whether the members themselves are prepared to risk their financial futures to protest against the cuts could be a harder message to sell.

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