Blair aides reveal snub to unions

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair has deliberately snubbed union bosses over rights at work, to convince voters that he is master in his own house.

At a private meeting of the Shadow Cabinet and the party's national executive last week to endorse the manifesto, the unions made an 11th- hour bid to persuade the Labour leader to give rights against unfair dismissal from the first day of a new job.

This would have honoured a pledge given by the late John Smith in a historic speech to the Trades Union Congress in 1993, promising to restore legal protections whittled away by four Conservative governments.

But David Blunkett, shadow Education and Employment Secretary, acting with Mr Blair's approval, vetoed the bid. "He was heavily against it," said a senior Labour source yesterday.

At present a claimant for unfair dismissal must have been in the job for at least two years. A party spokesman said last night: "We have no plans to change the two-year qualifying period."

The ruling means that a Bill on employment rights is unlikely to figure in the first Queen's speech of a Blair administration. But Labour is still committed to introducing a statutory national minimum wage in its first year, setting up a Low Pay Commission to determine the rates at which it will be paid.

Union leaders are certain to be livid at the snub. One senior official of the GMB general union said his general secretary, John Edmonds, would "go apeshit". But they are unlikely to vent their wrath in the middle of a General Election campaign.

TUC leaders had hoped to reach a compromise on the qualifying period, reducing it to six months at most. Under the last Labour government, workers got their rights immediately and all dismissals were regarded as unfair unless a tribunal ruled otherwise. The assumption now is of guilt and all dismissals are fair unless a tribunal decides to the contrary.

Aides of Mr Blair were yesterday leaking details of his tough stance against the unions' demands, to counter Tory attacks, particularly by the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, that the Labour manifesto was "a contract with the unions".

It is further pointed out that an extension of employment rights to part- time workers will not be legislated on in the first year of a Labour government, not least because the issue is still going through the European Courts and the House of Lords.

The unions have set much store by Labour's readiness to grant rights of recognition in the workplace where more than half the workforce wishes to be represented by a union. But it now seems certain that they would have to wait until 1999 to get these provisions on the statute book.

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