Unions debate priorities for a second term of Labour government

With a general election looming and the possibility of the Labour government achieving a second term in office, UK trade unions are in a positive mood and seeking to influence the political debate. In March 2001, participants at a conference organised by the Unions 21 network debated the employment and labour market issues that unions and government need to address.

On 10 March 2001, the Unions 21 network held its annual conference, which this year focused on the theme of "Unions and Labour's second term". Unions 21 is linked with the "modernising left" and exists to provide an "open space for discussion about how trade unions can modernise and win public support in a changing political and economic context". The conference included Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary John Monks and Department of Trade and Industry minister Alan Johnson amongst its main speakers, and drew a wide-ranging audience of trade unionists, policy makers, academics and other participants.

The conference covered a range of workplace and labour market issues, including the partnership agenda, participation at work, tomorrow's union officials, union mergers, work/life balance, the European single currency and the links between unions and the Labour Party. With a general election perhaps only a few months away, attention focused on the role that unions had to play in helping to deliver a second term in office for Labour and the issues that would need to be addressed.

Organising is the main challenge

In a keynote speech, John Monks observed that with unemployment down and Labour doing well, the "outlook for the trade union movement was very promising". The main task for unions, he said, was "to maximise their influence, to organise and recruit new members", especially amongst the young. Trade unions, he pointed out, are "at their best when they seek to be part of the solution, not cheerleaders or snipers on the margin". Unions had a great deal to offer and were already making a positive contribution to "improving the skills and learning opportunities of the workforce". In pressing for "family-friendly policies and an end to the UK's long hours culture", unions also had "a good story to tell". Despite strong employment growth, the unions had to face up to "a slight haemorrhaging of union membership" linked to the shift from traditional manufacturing to a more service-based economy. A key challenge was to find new ways to reach out to young people and make unionism "as attractive to today's generation as it had been to their mothers and fathers". In particular, he cited the success of the TUC Organising Academy (UK9708155F), where union organisers are trained to plan recruitment campaigns strategically, and welcomed the innovative work that many unions had already undertaken.

Embracing the European social partnership agenda

Turning to the Labour government's record in office, Mr Monks acknowledged that "there is much to celebrate in what Labour has achieved" and welcomed the raft of new employment rights the government had introduced. He said the decision to raise the level of the national minimum wage (NMW) by some 11%, announced on 5 March, was a "bold step given employer opposition and demonstrates just what it means to have a Labour government". For trade unionists, he insisted, there was no political alternative. "If the Conservatives did get elected", he warned, "then Fairness at Work (UK9806129F) and the Employment Relations Act (UK9912145F) is for the dustbin and workers' rights would again come under threat."

Nevertheless, Mr Monks also took the opportunity to "indulge some fears, hopes and grievances". The government, he said, seemed to have a particular "problem with decision making". He pointed out that across "the European Union, the model of social partnership means that unions, employers and public bodies work together and agreement is maximised". In the UK, however, with the notable exception of the Low Pay Commission (UK9807135F), "we don't have this social partnership approach" and are still involved in "a lobbying game". Mr Monks was also critical of Labour's enthusiasm for the US model. Telling Europe that it should "follow the American way", he said, smacked of condescension and was blind to the plight of "America's inner-city poor trapped on the margins of that society".

The TUC general secretary was particularly critical of the Labour government's opposition to the draft EU Directive on national information and consultation (EU0012285F). "A more positive approach is needed", he said, which acknowledged that "British workers are the cheapest to sack in Europe". Alluding to the recent job cuts at Corus (UK0102113F) and Vauxhall's decision to terminate production at its Luton car plant (UK0012104F), Mr Monks said that it was totally unacceptable that workers should have to hear of their fate "over the radio" and that "the very fact that the government is investing such effort in opposing this proposal says a lot about the government's commitment to the social partnership agenda."

Finally, the Employment Relations Act had enabled many unions to sign recognition deals with employers. However, there was still scope, he felt, to extend the law to cover small firms, as well as to review the threshold for a successful recognition ballot, currently a majority of workers voting and at least 40% of those eligible to vote (UK0007183F). Summing up, he said that Labour's first term had "secured real advances" but that it was "now time to move from reassurance to radicalism, from competence to social justice".

Defending Labour's record

Sharing a platform with the TUC general secretary, trade and industry minister Alan Johnson, defended the government's record on employment legislation which, he insisted, had ushered in "the biggest package of fundamental rights in our history". The Employment Relations Act had been "skilfully steered through parliament in the teeth of fierce and sustained opposition from the Conservative Party". The NMW had been successfully implemented without damaging either jobs or inflation (UK0004170F) and would soon to rise to GBP 4.10 per hour. The task for a second term was to "carry forward and consolidate the gains of the last four years and embed minimum standards in the workplace and labour market that stick". It was, he insisted, important to develop the social partnership agenda in the UK, pointing out that the "Low Pay Commission and the Central Arbitration Committee are themselves social partnership in action".

On the issue of information and consultation rights, Mr Johnson parted company with the TUC general secretary. "Let's be clear", he said, " this government is not opposed to information and consultation but the European Directive, as is Denmark. We believe we have to deal with the issue domestically according to our own tradition of industrial relations" (UK0101110F). There was, he said, a need to be "honest about our history". In the 1970s, British trade unions, he suggested, had opposed German-style works councils on the grounds that they would "marginalise trade unions in the workplace", and when the current government led by Tony Blair was elected the issue "didn't even register on the radar".

Partnership: buying in or selling out

One of the main themes of the conference was "the partnership agenda" between unions and employers. Speaking on behalf of the Engineering Employers' Federation, David Yeandle conceded that there was "no great enthusiasm for the concept of partnership among employers at European, national or sectoral level". While many employers remained "uncomfortable with the word partnership", they were nevertheless "interested in a new relationship at the workplace". Mr Yeandle went on to state that there was "no one-size-fits-all model of partnership". Successful partnerships therefore had to "build upon our history, technology and culture as well as the practice of particular organisations". While some employers were "positively engaged" with the partnership agenda, a vocal and powerful minority remained "opposed on principle". In the middle ground stood the majority of "agnostics" with "little experience of trade unions but strongly influenced by the lessons of the 1970s". They way forward, he suggested, was to produce better research and more models of "best practice" that demonstrated practically how partnership "adds value" to businesses.

Tina McKay of the Manufacturing Science Finance (MSF) union said that there was a wide variety of different partnership arrangements. However, "collaboration and working together with employers is nothing new and is ingrained in the history of the British trade union movement." It was also important to recognise that the social partnership agenda "does not signal the end to conflicts of interest and difference between the employers and employees". Unions had to "walk into the new agenda with their eyes open" and recognise that partnership implied some notion of equality and power balance. For these reasons, she argued, it would be very difficult to make partnership a living reality in small, non-unionised establishments. In her view, there could be "no panacea, no blue print and no platitudes. You can't make partnership work just by declaring it. It needs to be achieved through a well-organised and well-supported trade union in association with collective bargaining."

Commentary

Participants at this year's Unions 21 conference recognised that the central challenge facing the UK trade union movement is to strengthen their appeal and find new and innovative ways of recruiting members. On this issue, union leaders and activists seemed to agree with the observation made by John Monks that there "there is no rescue plan from a Labour government that can help us with that." For many, "the partnership agenda" offered trade unions an opportunity to regain their institutional presence in the workplace and re-enter the mainstream of employment relations. However, there were concerns that workplace representatives and national trade union leaders were not always speaking the same language when it came to partnership. As Tina McKay of MSF noted, "many union reps remain sceptical of partnership because they don't always trust employers not to take advantage of it."

At national level, there was an acknowledgement that real progress had been made under a Labour government with a raft of new employment legislation being introduced. However, as John Monks hinted, there was still a long way to go. In particular, there were concerns that new Labour did not appear fully committed to European-style social partnership, exemplified by its lukewarm commitment to information and consultation rights, and that the US model continued to exert a far more powerful pull on government policy. (Jonathan Payne, SKOPE)

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