* UK government and unions in war of words on pensions, cuts
* Unions warn of worst strikes since 1926 as anger grows
* Govt says must cut deficit; opposition says trap laid
By Peter Griffiths
LONDON, June 19 British unions will be making a
"colossal mistake" if they push ahead with threats to stage the
biggest strikes in nearly a century over public cuts and pension
reforms, a senior minister said on Sunday.
Treasury minister Danny Alexander infuriated unions last
week by announcing that public workers will have to work later
in life and pay more for their pensions even while talks on the
proposed changes are still taking place. [ID:nLDE75G0JJ]
His comments prompted the leader of the biggest public
sector union to threaten the most severe industrial action since
1926 when millions of workers joined a nine-day general strike
in support of coal miners. [ID:nLDE75H023]
With Britain attempting to slash a record peacetime budget
deficit, Alexander said the coalition must push ahead with the
pension reform, although the exact changes are still up for
"There is a huge amount of room for dialogue," he told Sky
News. "Industrial action is a colossal mistake. To go on strike
prematurely would be wrong."
The coalition government expects about 330,000 public jobs
to go as it cuts spending by 81 billion pounds ($131.2 billion)
over the next four years to try to avoid the sort of debt crisis
seen in Ireland, Greece and Portugal. It also wants to reform
public workers' pension schemes to make them cheaper to run.
Opposition Labour finance spokesman Ed Balls accused finance
minister George Osborne of laying a trap for the unions,
provoking them into striking to divert attention from the
government at a time of weak economic growth.
"He is trying to pick a fight about pensions, provoke
strikes and persuade the public to blame the stalling economy on
the unions," Balls wrote in the Sunday Mirror newspaper. "That's
why trade union leaders must avoid George Osborne's trap."
The economy grew by a sluggish 0.5 percent in the first
three months of the year after a shock contraction on the same
scale at the end of 2010.
Britain has so far avoided the mass strikes and violent
demonstrations seen in other European countries over deep public
spending cuts and tax rises.
However, union leaders have intensified their rhetoric,
warning that employees are growing angry at a time of low wage
growth, higher taxes and inflation at 4.5 percent, more than
double the central bank target.
About 750,000 workers including teachers and job centre
staff have already said they will stage coordinated action this
month in what would be Britain's worst stoppages for decades.