Trade unions debate future strategy

The annual conference of the UK's Trades Union Congress took place in September 1999. Key debates included those on unions' future organising strategies, UK entry into the European single currency and the regulation of working time. An underlying theme concerned relations between unions and the UK's Labour government.

The 1999 annual conference of the UK's Trades Union Congress (TUC) took place on 13-16 September. The agenda covered a wide range of employment issues and featured speeches by a number of government ministers including the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers.

A key debate focused on the TUC's Millennial challenge discussion document, which is designed to prompt unions to address the implications of rapid changes in the world of work over the coming decade. The TUC's recommendations include:

  • giving higher priority to organising;
  • more and better workplace representatives;
  • a more logical trade union structure;
  • developing a coherent union "brand"; and
  • reducing, and dealing more quickly with, inter-union conflict.

In a keynote speech to the conference, TUC general secretary John Monks set a target of increasing trade union membership by a million over the next five years. He stressed the importance of getting trade unionism across to younger people and of "taking a hard look at union culture and organisation". The conference backed a motion giving broad support to the review process, which will continue at a special meeting of the TUC general council and all TUC-affiliated unions in October.

Among other decisions, the conference also:

  • urged the government actively to pursue UK entry into the single European currency early in the new decade (UK9909129N and UK9909129N);
  • called for parental leave to be paid and to be made available in respect of children born before the 15 December 1999 commencement date for the proposed parental leave regulations (UK9908123N);
  • called for an (unspecified) uprating of the statutory national minimum wage, currently GBP 3.60 an hour, while supporting a minimum collective bargaining target of GBP 5.00 an hour (UK9904196F); and
  • condemned the government's amendments to the 1998 working time Regulations and the "absurdly short" consultation period involved (UK9907117N).

Union anger at the government's changes to the working time Regulations provided an unpropitious backdrop to the conference speeches by Mr Blair and Mr Byers. Both politicians stressed that the government's relationship with the unions was based on "fairness not favours". Mr Byers said it was not his intention to exclude white-collar workers from the protection offered by the working time Regulations, and that guidance on the revised Regulations would make this clear. Mr Blair said that the TUC was consulted and listened to, just as the Confederation of British Industry was, and that his was a government "which takes decisions for the whole country". He acknowledged the modernising steps taken by unions but urged them to act "not as the standard-bearer for the status quo but as champions for change".

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