TUC conference highlights government-union tensions
The annual conference of the Trades Union Congress took place in September 2005. Union leaders were critical of a range of government policies. This article highlights some of the key issues discussed.
In September 2005, the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) took place in Brighton. At the 2004, pre-election conference, government-union tensions over policy had been handled in a relatively muted fashion, but this year union leaders were more vocal in their in their criticisms of the government.
The conference approved a resolution which called for the repeal of 'anti-trade union laws' and their replacement with a 'framework of positive rights', including:
- the right of unions to organise industrial action without the threat of legal proceedings by employers;
- 'freedom to take solidarity action in support of workers who are in dispute'; and
- protection from dismissal for workers taking lawful industrial action.
Union leaders argued that developments in the dispute at Gate Gourmet (UK0509106F) had exposed defects in the UK’s employment laws and highlighted the case for radical amendment. However, ministers indicated that they were not prepared to act on calls for solidarity action to be made lawful, nor to decide policy on the basis of one dispute, however high-profile.
Another key issue at the conference was pensions (UK0411107F). Delegates endorsed a report from the TUC general council’s pensions task group that set out a series of recommendations on:
- the reform of the basic state pension;
- a 'revitalised' second state pension; and
- a system of compulsory contributions to occupational pension schemes involving a 2:1 split in employer and employee contributions.
The conference also supported a resolution on occupational pensions that called on the government to meet the long-term retirement savings shortfall through compulsory employer contributions and to ensure the 'strongest possible security for workers’ pension savings'.
On public sector pensions (UK0504104N), unions adopted a resolution calling on the TUC to support and co-ordinate public service unions in their efforts to defend and improve the public sector pension schemes, 'including through further industrial action if necessary', and to campaign against any imposed change to pension schemes - specifically increased pension ages. Trade and industry secretary Alan Johnson told the conference he accepted that the government’s original approach to this issue had been wrong. He said that public servants had 'a right to expect proposals to change their pensions arrangements to be discussed and negotiated with their trade unions', and that this was now happening.
Among a wide range of other issues discussed, a resolution on industrial policy urged the government to support 'the European social model of economic prosperity twinned with social cohesion'. It argued that job insecurity will continue unless the UK develops 'a level playing field of employment rights, social planning and industrial policy'. Moreover, 'labour market flexibility has not improved our productivity'. The conference also opposed the government’s negotiating position on the revision of the working time Directive (UK0506104F), and called on the government, during its EU presidency, to end the individual opt-out from the 48-hour average working week.
Prior to the conference, a number of prominent union leaders had called for the prime minister Tony Blair to stand down. However, in a speech to the conference, Gordon Brown, widely seen as Mr Blair’s most likely successor, emphasised his commitment to the continuation of 'new Labour' policies, and was reported to have received a mixed reception from delegates.
Another looming issue concerns the potential implications of the proposed three-way merger between Amicus, the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the GMB union for the future role of the TUC. The projected new 'super union' would represent 2.5 million workers - 40% of the TUC’s membership. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber told delegates that the merger could deliver 'real benefits', but stressed the historical importance of maintaining a single and united trade union voice via the TUC.
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