Michael Gove blames strike action on ‚militants itching for a fight‘
Minister hints at imposing longer notice on walkouts, and predicts 90% of schools will shut because of strike
Jeevan Vasagar, Dan Milmo and Nicholas Watt
The Guardian, Tuesday 29 November 2011
Michael Gove suggests that Britain’s strike laws need reforming. Link to this video
Michael Gove, the education secretary, has warned that striking workers may be forced to give employers more notice of any intention to take industrial action, and he termed some union leaders as „militants itching for a fight“.
With the rhetoric toughened on both sides before Wednesday’s mass walkout, the leader of Britain’s largest public sector union warned that a „rolling programme“ of strikes would be agreed for the new year.
About 2.6 million workers from 30 unions have been balloted on industrial action, with an estimated 750,000 voting in favour.
Trades unions are contesting a series of pension reforms, including a rise in annual contributions to £2.8bn by 2014-15, starting with an increase of £1.1bn next year, followed by £1.1bn and then £0.6bn in the following two years.
Gove said: „One of my concerns is that you do not have to give notice directly to your employer that you will go on strike. You need simply to inform them on the day. Contingency planning is made more difficult because of that.“
The minister said it was „unfair and unrealistic“ to expect taxpayers to cover the growing shortfall between employees‘ contributions and pension payments.
In a speech to the Policy Exchange thinktank, Gove anticipated that more than 90% of schools would close, forcing tens of thousands of parents to „scrabble around“ for childcare.
„On Wednesday TUC leaders will call on their members to bring Britain to a halt. Among those union leaders are people who fight hard for their members, and whom I respect. But there are also hardliners – militants itching for a fight.
„They want families to be inconvenienced. They want mothers to give up a day’s work, or to pay for expensive childcare, because schools will be closed. They want teachers and other public sector workers to lose a day’s pay in the runup to Christmas. They want scenes of industrial strife on our TV screens, they want to make economic recovery harder, they want to provide a platform for confrontation, just when we all need to pull together.“
Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, dismissed Gove’s criticism as „absolute nonsense“.
He said: „The action will go ahead. There is absolutely no chance whatsoever of any deal over the next couple of days.“ Prentis and other union leaders have described the rises as an arbitrary „tax“ that will help pay down the deficit but do nothing to make the four pension schemes – in the sectors of health, education, civil service and local government – sustainable.
Unions are also objecting, via a court case, to a change in the uprating of pensions by switching from the retail price index (RPI) rate of inflation to the less buoyant consumer price index (CPI) rate.
The government wants these changes to come into effect by 2015, but Prentis warned that the government was asking for „far, far too much“.
The Unison leader said that talks with the government were likely to yield a deal only in outline, at best, by the end of the year, because of the scale of the reforms that Francis Maude, the cabinet secretary, and Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, were trying to implement.
Prentis added that further action would be discussed with the 22 other unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. Asked what form the next wave of strike action could take, the Unison head said the walkouts could be grouped into a programme of protests split into regions or employment groups.
Unison members in Southampton have teamed up with fellow council employees affiliated to Unite to stage waves of strikes affecting different services each time, from rubbish collection to port administration and social work.
Unison claims that its membership applications had surged by 126% over the past month, compared with the same period last year.
He added that the government’s position was untenable in the face of members‘ views: „It is too much to ask, and we believe that the action that is being taken on Wednesday is the only way that public service workers can show to our communities what they are worth.“
David Cameron chaired a civil contingencies meeting to ensure the government is prepared. As the government confirmed that it started making contingency plans in April to staff Britain’s border, Downing Street said the prime minister convened meeting to assure himself adequate precautions had been taken. „We need to try and make an assessment [of Wednesday] in order to work through our contingency plans,“ a spokesman said. „Part of that is working with different bits of the public sector to make sure people who are affected are aware of likely disruption, aware of whether or not their school is likely to be closed and so on.“
Senior officials will meet on Wednesday, probably in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR), to co-ordinate the response. It will focus on ensuring the government issues reliable information about which public services are operating and which are closed.
In Manchester, Cameron said: „I deeply regret that the strikes are going ahead. It’ll be inconvenient for many families with children who find their schools are shut. It’ll be inconvenient for travellers who want to either leave or get into the UK. And I don’t think these strikes will achieve anything, I don’t think they’ll change anything, I don’t think they’ll improve anything.
„We’ve made a very fair offer to public sector workers in terms of giving them pensions that are more generous than anything available in the private sector. We have to accept the simple fact that people are living longer, and that in order to have affordable pension schemes they have to contribute a little bit more and retire a little later.
„The strikes will put a lot of families at a huge inconvenience, but the government will go on and do the right thing to mitigate the effects.“
Lord Henley, the Home Office minister, said the government had started preparing in April for a strike by border staff. „We started training additional staff in contingency in April and adequate resources are now available.“ Any staff deployed on the frontline will have received training required to operate effectively. Arriving passengers will remain subject to checks at the border by appropriately trained staff.“
Asked after the speech who he identified as a militant, Gove said he would not use that description for any teaching union leader.
„You have only got to look at the words of Len McCluskey in the Guardian today, consider the conduct of Mark Serwotka throughout this dispute or look at the political record of Mr Andrew Murray, who is a lead official in Unite, to recognise that ‚militant‘ is a badge that fits for all those three.“
In his speech he urged teachers to „pause and reflect“ before joining the walkouts.
„This is a good deal – one that millions in the private sector envy.
„This is a difficult time – when we all have to reflect on the fact that we’re all in this together.“
But by Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison. He said on Monday: „The action will go ahead. There is absolutely no chance whatsoever of any deal over the next couple of days.“
Gove, in his thinktank address, spoke of his own experience as a journalist involved in a strike called by union leaders to „prove a point“.
„I lost my job. So did more than 100 others. I was lucky – young, unmarried, without a mortgage. I got another job soon enough.
„Many others didn’t. They never worked again in the profession they loved. And the deal we were offered before the strike never improved.“
Gove warned that public sector pensions reform is necessary as everyone is living longer – especially teachers.
„In comparison to the UK average, figures for teachers show even greater life expectancy. And between 2004 and 2010 the number of teachers working beyond 60 increased from 9,909 to 31,572.“
Gove said that he was not asking teachers to work until they were 68. Instead, while the thegovernment is proposing that teachers‘ pension age should be raised to 68, teachers will be able to take their pension at any age from 55 to 75.
Contingency plans to cope with strike
Heathrow, Britain’s busiest international airport, has lost faith in the UK Border Agency’s contingency plan and asked airlines to switch tens of thousands of passengers to inbound flights on alternative dates. The Home Office has been scouring the civil service for volunteers to work in its passport control booths, but at Heathrow staff levels are expected to be 50% below normal. Airlines are being asked to cut capacity on arriving international flights by half, or immigration halls will not be able to process the 60,000 passengers expected on the day.
Care for emergency and urgent patients, including A&E and maternity, will be given priority under an agreement between unions and NHS chiefs. Patient safety will also be protected. Services for cancer patients and those on kidney dialysis are expected to carry on as normal.
The Cabinet Office says it expects disruption in Whitehall departments to be „limited“ as departments gegen deredeploy staff to fill gaps and focus on high-priority work. „All core functions will continue to be delivered,“ it said.
Contingencies vary across the more than 300 councils in England and Wales, with Cornwall hoping to keep libraries open, and Newcastle’s office for registering deaths staying open. Privatised services have more chances of staying open. Many councils have agreed with unions to run emergency cover for vital areas such as social care.
Almost 90% of schools and colleges in England and Wales are expected to close, as walkouts by teachers, headteachers and teaching assistants leave unpluggable gaps. Schools can, in theory, use background-checked volunteers who regularly help out, but not supply teachers. Dan Milmo