TUC conference overshadowed by petrol price protests
In September 2000, the annual conference of the UK Trades Union Congress took place. As in 1999, debates at the conference highlighted the uneasy relationship between the unions and the Labour government. However, media attention was largely distracted by the impact of protests over petrol prices.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) held its annual conference on 11-14 September 2000 in Glasgow. The agenda covered a wide range of employment issues and featured speeches from EU social affairs Commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.
In a pre-conference briefing, TUC general secretary John Monks said that the TUC was meeting in the most favourable political and economic context in over 30 years and that unions were in confident mood. He described the TUC's relations with government as "good but sometimes patchy - they should be better", and said that he was looking for ministers to act on a number of workplace issues. It emerged that the Prime Minister is to hold regular, quarterly meetings with union leaders, in addition to the TUC's usual consultative access to departmental ministers.
A key debate at the conference concerned UK attitudes to the European Union. The conference supported a resolution arguing that the UK should join the European single currency "if the economic conditions are right" and at an exchange rate that is sustainable, and that unions should play a leading part in campaigning for euro entry prior to a decision by referendum during the lifetime of the next parliament. The resolution also called for: the EU Charter of fundamental rights - including trade union rights - to be enshrined in the EU treaties (EU0010273N); an end to the UK government's opposition (UK9911138N) to the draft EU Directive on national information and consultation rules (EU9812135F); and support for the European Trade Union Confederation' s proposals for amending the European Works Councils Directive (EU0001221N).
In her speech to the conference, Ms Diamantopoulou did not directly address the issue of the UK government's opposition to the draft Directive on employee consultation, but said that the UK should do more to develop "social partnership" – reflecting one of the Commission's draft recommendations to the UK in connection with its National Action Plan on employment for 2000. She also referred to information and consultation as a "tool of modern management".
Among other decisions, the TUC conference called for:
- enhanced redundancy consultation procedures "well in advance of any announcements being made" (UK0004167N) and the improvement of the statutory recognition procedure and other elements of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (UK9912145F);
- an early review of the UK working time Regulations and an end to the continued scope for individuals to opt out of the EU working time Directive's 48-hour maximum working week (UK0001150F);
- paid parental leave, the abandonment of the UK's restriction of parental leave to parents of children born on or after 15 December 1999 (UK0006176N) and improvements in maternity leave provision including the right to return to work part-time; and
- an increase in the level of the national minimum wage to between GBP 4.50 and GBP 5.00 per hour (UK0009187N).
The TUC conference coincided with demonstrations outside oil refineries and depots by farmers and road hauliers protesting at the price of diesel which rapidly resulted in petrol supplies being cut off and affected the level of media coverage of the conference. A strongly worded statement drawn up by the TUC general council was endorsed by the conference. This said that "the blockades are not a legitimate form of industrial action but a challenge to democracy and a crude attempt to hold the country to ransom." The statement called on union members to work normally and expressed full support for the government in safeguarding the operation of essential services.
In his speech to delegates – on the theme of full employment – Gordon Brown said he understood people's concern about petrol prices but emphasised that the government was not prepared to be pushed into lurches in taxation policy by the protests. To do so would be "irresponsible short-termism", which he argued would damage the UK's economic stability.