Unions win concessions from ministers on employment law agenda

In July 2004, UK trade union leaders secured agreement from government ministers on a series of employment law reforms and other policy commitments. The move - seen as a pre-election pact ahead of the general election expected in spring 2005 - follows strong union criticism of the Blair government’s record.

Discussions between trade union leaders and government ministers at the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum held at Warwick University on 24-25 July 2004 resulted in agreement on a range of employment law reforms and other policy commitments that are expected to feature in the party’s manifesto for the next general election, likely to be held in spring 2005. Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, said that the National Policy Forum had 'agreed a raft of progressive policies on which to fight and win the next general election campaign, including a package of measures to boost employment rights for UK workers'. The move followed sustained trade union criticism of the record in the area of employment and industrial relations policy of the government led by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

According to trade union sources, the agreed measures include:

  • ending the 'two-tier workforce' in public services (UK0302107F);
  • UK government backing for the proposed EU Directive on temporary agency workers (UK0212101N);
  • extending the ban on the dismissal of striking workers from eight weeks to 12;
  • providing that bank holidays will no longer count towards workers’ 20 days’ statutory annual leave entitlement;
  • a new commission to tackle unequal pay for women (UK0402104F);
  • new sector forums bringing together unions and employers in low-paid sectors;
  • a review of business support for manufacturing;
  • extending protection under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations to pensions;
  • increasing employee representation on boards of trustees managing pension schemes;
  • including pensions among the issues for collective bargaining under statutory trade union recognition (UK0201171F);
  • increasing redundancy pay; and
  • introducing a training levy in sectors that fail to meet targets for vocational skills training.

Union leaders welcomed the outcome of the meeting as a 'significant shift' towards a more radical policy platform for the party. Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, said that: 'The trade unions’ united stance in a number of policy areas paid dividends'. The CBI employers’ organisation warned that the deal would 'chip away' at the UK’s labour market flexibility.

However, senior Labour figures reportedly emphasised that ministers had resisted union pressure for more radical changes to existing industrial relations legislation, and that many of the reforms were already in the pipeline irrespective of union demands. One was quoted as saying: 'None of our red lines have been crossed'.

In particular, the party leadership rebuffed union arguments for full employment rights to apply from the first day of employment and for amendments to extend the current statutory trade union recognition procedure to smaller firms. However, unions’ intention to continue to campaign for these and other objectives is reflected in the agenda for the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in September 2004. Motions submitted by unions for debate call for a range of employment law reforms going substantially beyond those included in the National Policy Forum package.

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