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Unions Pledge Direct Action to Halt Changes to U.K. Labor Laws

The leaders of two of the U.K.’s biggest labor unions said they’ll use direct action and civil disobedience to stop any attempt by the government to curb workers’ right to strike.

Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union with 1.5 million members, and Paul Kenny, who heads the 601,000-member GMB union, pledged to fight calls by Conservative lawmakers to change the law, as unions prepare coordinated strikes against public-sector budget cuts.

“We will give them the biggest campaign of civil disobedience their tiny little minds can ever imagine,” Kenny told delegates at the Trades Union Congress’s annual conference in London today. “Bad laws have to be broken,” he said. “If going to prison is the price for standing up to bad laws, then so be it.”

As many as 10 unions are planning to strike in November to oppose curbs on public-sector pensions following a strike in June that closed 48 percent of schools in England and Wales, delayed emergency calls to police and disrupted welfare services. Prime Minister David Cameron said in January he was “looking at the arguments” for new legislation “because I don’t want to see a wave of irresponsible strikes.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson has proposed a change in the law so that any strike must have the support of more than 50 percent of union members rather than half of those who choose to vote, as at present.

‘Fighting Traditions’

McCluskey said unions should use the tactics of student movements, whose protests against an increase in tuition fees last year descended into violence, and the U.K. Uncut direct-action group. He said unions will confront any planned strike curbs “in our best fighting traditions.”

“The message to the government is this: Push us outside of the wall and you will be responsible for the consequences,” McCluskey told delegates. “We will bring Wisconsin to Westminster.”

In Wisconsin, protesters occupied the state capitol building in Madison and staged protests in the streets earlier this year against a proposal by Governor Scott Walker to curb collective bargaining for government employees. Fourteen Wisconsin Senate Democrats left the state Feb. 17 and spent more than three weeks in Illinois in an attempt to block the law by denying the chamber a quorum.

Earlier today, Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, Britain’s umbrella labor movement with 6.2 million members, said unions should coordinate action to oppose the government’s economic strategy.

‘Mass Movement’

Barber, who proposed a levy on all member unions to raise 2 million pounds ($3.2 million) over two years for a campaign against spending cuts and in favor of investment in growth, called for a “mass movement for change” in a speech to the conference.

“This is a pledge to work with every ally we can muster as we fight our greatest battle in living memory,” Barber told delegates. “Whether it’s fighting cuts to pensions, fighting NHS reforms, or fighting inequality, one thing’s for sure: we are at our best when we are united.”

Barber also used his speech to attack economists who are now talking of a double-dip recession when a year ago they were telling union leaders that were wrong to warn of one.

“The government has succeeded in making the deficit the key problem, so we have to shift the terms of the debate,” Barber said. “We say that you can’t cut the deficit by depressing the economy, it’s only through jobs and growth that we can heal the public finances. Of course the deficit is important, but it is just one symptom of what’s wrong.”

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