Blair appeal to union chiefs over wage policy

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Labour Editor

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have both made personal appeals to union leaders in an attempt to avoid embarrassment over the national minimum wage at the annual congress of the TUC next week.

While publicly dissociating themselves from the fratricidal politics of Congress House, the Labour leader and the shadow Chancellor have been closely involved in a covert campaign which has so far failed to sanitise motions on the subject.

Through a combination of phone calls to union leaders and face-to-face meetings, the two Labour politicians have been trying to ensure that a call for a pounds 4.15-an-hour minimum is dropped from the agenda of next week's annual meeting.

Senior Labour figures are keen to avoid the endorsement of a similar proposition tabled for the party conference next month. If the TUC fails to support it, the Labour leadership will have a far stronger case at its own national assembly.

Mr Brown has personally contacted John Monks, TUC general secretary, and the leaders of the big unions to enlist their good offices and the Labour leader telephoned Ken Cameron, general secretary of the 52,000- member Fire Brigades Union to urge him to drop his pounds 4.15 demand.

While the Labour leadership reluctantly accepts that the congress will call for a rate of half of male median earnings, the FBU and Ucatt, the construction union, want to call for pounds 4.15. The TUC's official calculation is that the formula can produce a figure anywhere between pounds 3.60 and pounds 4.15. At Congress House yesterday, Mr Monks went to the unusual length of publicly taking sides. He said attaching a set figure to the formula could split congress and weaken the TUC's position. "There is a widespread feeling that it would prompt division which would not be helpful to the cause of a minimum wage."

At the TUC's ruling general council yesterday the firefighters and construction workers agreed to consider the position further, but a decision may not be made until next week.

George Brumwell, general secretary of Ucatt, said 4.5 million people stood to benefit from a statutory minimum of pounds 4.15. "This is a perfectly good issue to be debating, but it has been blown up out of all proportion. It now seems to be a crisis of confidence between the TUC and the Labour Party. I have agreed to consult within my union and reflect on the matter."

An emergency meeting of the general council has been called tomorrow in a further attempt to resolve the impasse.

Mr Blair will address TUC delegates in Brighton next Tuesday on the eve of the minimum wage debate. He will argue that whatever the decision of Congress, the final decision would be made by a future Labour government on the advice of a low-pay commission.

The official TUC line on the minimum wage is that the union movement's "bid" will not be published until the completion of a consultation exercise involving employees' representatives in a range of industries.