Blair considers further boost to union rights adding to trade union rig hts for trade unions new boost to union rights

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

Tony Blair has promised senior trade union leaders that he will consider proposals to strengthen the party's planned pro-union legislation.

During a confidential meeting last week of the so-called "contact group" - a grouping of senior figures from both wings of the labour movement which is officially said not to exist - the Labour leader promised the party's biggest affiliates that he would review policy on trade union recognition.

While party sources were sceptical that "new Labour" would accede to union requests, the proposed law on recognition is at the heart of an unspoken accord within the Labour movement which has helped Mr Blair to "modernise" the Labour Party. Present Labour policy stipulates that where a trade union has recruited more than half the employees in a workplace, it should have the right to bargain over pay and conditions.

At the contact group meeting at TUC Congress House early last week, however, union leaders contended that it was virtually impossible to recruit members where there was no recognition in the first place.

Mr Blair has agreed to consider strengthening the proposals by introducing a law which would enforce recognition when more than half of the employees in a workplace voted for it, whether or not they were current union members.

He has also agreed to look at TUC proposals contained in its Voice At Work document which argues for a statutory body to adjudicate in cases where recognition is disputed.

Union sources assert that Mr Blair has taken on board suggestions that present Labour policy might not be "practical" and indicated his readiness to consider the suggestions positively.

Such changes would greatly enhance the possibility of recognition and could increase the chances of union bargaining rights in workplaces as diverse as Marks & Spencer and Rupert Murdoch's newspaper printing plant at Wapping, east London. They would also lead to further accusations from the Government that Labour Party policy is still being dictated in public and private by "union barons".

Among those attending last week's meeting were Mr Blair, his deputy John Prescott, Bill Morris of the Transport & General Workers' Union and John Edmonds of the GMB general union.

The Labour Party leader is in something of a dilemma because the recognition policy is seen as critical to the future of trade unionism in Britain and therefore to the unions' continued support for the Labour leadership.

A senior union leader told the Independent after last year's annual Labour conference that the party's union affiliates had acquiesced over the move towards "new Labour" because they knew a Blair government would grant them enhanced rights. Unions still command half the votes at the annual party conference.

The Labour leader has reiterated to trade unionists recently that they can expect "fairness not favours" from a Blair administration and that a government under his leadership would not act as a union recruiting sergeant.

However Mr Blair agrees that the present state of affairs - created by a continual stream of "anti-union" legislation - is unfair.

Senior party officials will only say publicly that the recognition policy is "under review", but union leaders believe the proposals will be strengthened. Unions insist that the promises over recognition are among the most "robust" of commitments.