LONDON (Reuters) - 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, Treasury minister Danny Alexander said on Sunday.
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.
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.
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 discussion.
“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 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.
Labour finance spokesman Ed Balls accused Chancellor 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. “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.