(Reuters) - The heads of 58 trade unions, representing almost 6.5 million workers, just over a quarter of the British workforce, meet in London this week at the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC).
The three-day conference organised by the union umbrella group was likely to be one of the most charged in years with public-sector pension reform, the coalition government’s handling of the economy, its austerity drive, public-sector cuts and the right to strike high on the agenda.
Here are some facts about Britain’s unions and where they stand on possible co-ordinated strike action:
* The TUC is led by Brendan Barber, 60, regarded as a fairly moderate union leader who prefers dialogue to confrontation.
* Its five biggest affiliates, in descending order, are Unite (manufacturing, engineering) 1.5 million members; Unison (local government, utilities, health care, schools, transport) 1.4 million; GMB (UK’s general union) 602,000; USDAW (retail, manufacturing, catering) 386,500; PCS (civil servants) 301,500.
* Union membership has shrunk in Britain since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government took on the unions, clashing with the miners and print workers in the 1980s, and imposed fundamental reforms that changed the face of British industry.
* Membership fell sharply through the ‘80s from 56 percent of the workforce at the start of the decade to around a quarter by the end of the ‘90s, but TUC figures show numbers have stabilised over the last decade.
POSSIBLE FLASH-POINTS: PENSION REFORM
* Conference comes in the middle of negotiations between ministers and unions on public-sector pension reform, a major source of friction between opposing sides which could result in strikes (official or otherwise) this autumn.
* Negotiations resumed this week after the summer holidays.
* An overhaul of pensions is part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s package of austerity measures adopted after it took power 16 months ago to tackle a budget deficit running at about 10 percent of GDP.
* The government insists that public sector workers — including some of the lowest paid — significantly increase contributions they pay into state-controlled pension schemes by next April, to raise more than 1 billion pounds extra revenue for the Treasury in 2012-2013.
* It says pension reform is vital as the system is no longer affordable with people living longer, as well as being unfair on the taxpayer and those in the private sector.
* Unions counter it would mean people would work longer and pay more for worse pensions. They also say it comes at a time when millions of workers are facing a two-year pay freeze and hundreds of thousands are expected to lose their jobs.
* Barber has said he would decide by the end of October whether to sanction strike action against planned increases to pension contributions. However, according to sources at the TUC, he is also keen not to portray next week’s meeting as a clarion call for industrial action.
* Dave Prentis, head of Britain’s second biggest union, Unison, said earlier this year he sees little chance of a resolution on pensions describing differences with ministers as “a chasm between us.”
* Union chiefs have warned of the biggest labour stoppages for almost 100 years — since the 1926 general strike which involved some 3 million workers — if the government failed to negotiate on pensions and public sector cuts. Unison says it has amassed a 30-million-pound war chest for what could be months of industrial action.
* About 300,000 teachers and civil servants went on strike in June against pension reforms and austerity measures. Four unions took part in what they said was the biggest action in decades and chiefs warned future ones could involve more than 20 unions.
* Showing the depth of anger even moderate unions took part in the June strike. One, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, had until then, never staged a national strike in its 127-year history.
* The government has hinted that mass strikes could lead to tougher new union laws. Some Conservatives want a law banning industrial action not supported by 50 percent of all union members and minimum service agreements for workers.
* Barber has reacted strongly to that threat. In a recent newspaper interview he described any move to restrict the right to strike as “utterly unjustified.”
* Union rules stipulating ballots have to be conducted by post rather than show of hands.
* Barber warned any new strike laws could result in unofficial wild-cat walkouts by workers causing mass disruption as frustrated employees took matters into their own hands.
* Prime Minister David Cameron has said the coalition is prepared to talk to unions as they were made up of “very reasonable people,” but he has stressed striking is counter-productive and ministers would not be bullied into ditching spending cuts and pension reform.
Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Janet Lawrence