Blair faces TUC row on minimum wage policy

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

Tony Blair faces a damaging row with unions over plans for a national minimum wage after the TUC leadership failed to keep a highly sensitive amendment off the agenda for next month's annual congress.

Despite the best efforts of John Monks, general secretary of the TUC, both the firefighters and construction workers' unions are insisting the movement renews its commitment to a pounds 4.15-an-hour minimum.

Mr Blair believes such a pledge would damage his election chances and has insisted a future Labour government would only introduce a statutory minimum after taking advice from a low-pay commission on which both unions and employers would be represented.

With the support of the TUC's two biggest affiliates - the Unison public service union and the Transport & General - the pounds 4.15 figure would stand a strong chance of being adopted.

A further clash is expected at the Labour Party conference unless Mr Blair's aides can persuade a dozen constituency parties to drop their backing for a figure to be set in advance of the general election.

While the TUC annual congress is expected to back pounds 4.15, it is also likely to endorse a much vaguer statement from the TUC's general council. The official line will reiterate the TUC's commitment to striking a minimum at half of male median earnings but say such a calculation can produce figures of between pounds 3.60 and pounds 4.15.

Mr Monks hopes that backing for the statement will minimise the damage wrought by the left-led Fire Brigades Union and Ucatt, the construction workers' union. If the amendments are passed, Mr Monks will argue that the TUC statement will take precedence over the amendments, especially as it received the backing of both Ucatt and the FBU during general council discussions.

The Labour leadership still hopes to cut a deal with the big unions so the amendments tabled by the FBU and Ucatt are dropped when motions are "composited" in the run-up to congress. Senior party figures believe union leaders are willing "not to rock the boat".

The third-largest TUC affiliate, the GMB general union, is likely to adopt the party loyalist line, saying pounds 4 should become a target for bargaining. Mr Blair believes it may even be possible to persuade the left-led T&G to distance itself from the amendments.

If the private arm-twisting sessions do not succeed and the amendments are passed, Mr Blair is expected to "tough it out" and dismiss the TUC's decision as irrelevant.

But left-wing union leaders pointed out that opinion polls showed the national minimum wage policy is popular with the electorate, most of whom support the pounds 4.15 minimum.

Ken Cameron, the firefighters' leader, said: "We have not insisted on the amendment to be mischievous. We believe it is a popular policy. We simply believe that people really ought to be presented with a clear figure."