The Thing Is: Unions

People might talk about the 1970s, but there is meat in many union beefs
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The Independent Online

It is easy to call trade unions the awkward squad and say they have become more militant. But in corporate Britain, plenty of issues should be getting unions hot under the blue collar.

The Trades Union Congress begins its annual conference this week and it has lots on the agenda: pensions, employee rights, equality and the decline of manufacturing. Activists will rail against the greed of the fat cats and the complicity of the Government. But the unions are not just troublemaking - at least not all the time. These are real issues for workers in UK plcs.

Final-salary schemes - which guarantee a certain level of pension for workers - are being rapidly closed down. Of course, employers' organisations, such as the Institute of Directors, say these defined-benefit schemes are old fashioned, designed for when workers would stick to a job for life.

And that would be all very well, but TUC research published last week showed that the bosses are more fortunate. Its survey of Britain's largest companies discovered that more than half of those which had closed the defined-benefit scheme for workers still had the option open to directors. The TUC highlighted pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, business services firms Rentokil Initial and Compass, and troubled insurer Royal & SunAlliance as culprits in this respect.

The large pay rises enjoyed by many bosses in the UK have riled the unions, particularly when they are awarded where a company is struggling. In April, for example, it was revealed that the troubled steel company Corus had boosted its directors' bonus scheme while making more than 1,000 workers redundant.

And when research showed FTSE 100 bosses' pay had risen seven times faster than workers' pay last year, Kevin Curran, the head of the GMB, described it as "sickening greed".

Meanwhile, manufacturing is in difficulty. An Amicus survey of its redundant engineering members due out this week will show that they have taken hefty pay cuts and now work in unskilled jobs.

The union is particularly annoyed that continental European governments are protective of their industries but the UK just looks for the cheapest price. Amicus cited the plight of the French company Alstom's UK workers, who are likely to lose their jobs because a contract to make trains for London's Tube would go to the Continent. A similar situation is also feared at Bombardier, as it lost a deal to make the trains for the new Transpennine franchise.

Any more union radicalism and people will be talking about the 1970s. But there is meat in many of the unions' beefs.